View Full Version : Labeling maps

12-21-2009, 05:03 PM
Are there any good discussions on map labeling that folks could point me toward? Here is my situation:

I have been working on the world map (http://www.cartographersguild.com/showthread.php?t=8377) for my current fantasy game. I would like to have the "big" map of the whole hemisphere be labeled, and then just crop sections like the upper left 1/9th (more or less) for specific areas.

I have encountered several issues.

1) What looks good zoomed out is overwhelming when zoomed in, and what looks good zoomed in is invisible zoomed out.
2) How do I distinguish between political labels (a country name or city name) from a geographical feature (a river or mountain) from a descriptive name that isn't really political or geographical (goblins)?
3) I make continent labels bigger than nation labels bigger than city labels, but how big should a label for a river/lake/mountain/desert be? What if it's a HUGE desert? What if it's a teeeeeeny tiny river?
4) I considered using different colors for different label types, but the color of my map varies in luminosity quite dramatically. I have to have dark text when the map is light and light text when the map is dark, so that makes it impossible to use the color of the label text to mean something.

I am sure that I am not the first persopn to encounter these issues. If you take a look at my Archaea map (http://www.cartographersguild.com/showpost.php?p=93572&postcount=3) (which is roughly the top left 1/9th of my world map), you can see how I am currently dealing with these issues. I am interested in any advice or suggestions anyone might have.

12-21-2009, 06:29 PM
Since I am not aware of any major discussions about this topic (some veteran might chime in and provide some directions, you never know), I can only provide my personal opinions.

1) I fear it's not the answer you want to hear, but you always make a map for a purpose. If you plan to have your map printed in a book, you better make some design choices to reflect that, opposed to pure digital publishing.
In practice, it means you choose a zoom factor it is best viewed at.
Printing will use different "zooms" than website publishing, especially when it comes down to legibility of the labels.

2) You have many options. You can use colors, you can use all-caps, you can use italics. You can even use other fonts, but I try to avoid that since it adds a level of chaos to the map that is not necessary. Just give it a try and see what you like.

3) I use one rule here. (Can't say I didn't break it in the past, but at least I try to avoid breaking it). Don't make a label bigger just because a place is bigger.
Instead, try to find a good average that serves your map and try to keep to it. People will look for consistency. If all your mountains are labeled with the same font, in the same color, the same size, and the same font variation, people will recognize mountain labels more easily.

4) I try to keep the same terrain types at the same luminosity throughout my maps. This makes labelling a lot easier. If your style differs, try an outline around the text, which might keep it readable.

Just some suggestions,
I hope this helps.

12-21-2009, 08:04 PM
You can use an app that is aware of the zoom so can get rid of labels that are too big.

Normally tho I have seen that big labels have been done real faded so when zoomed in then they are a lot less conspicuous.

Another option is to keep all labeling on different layers or even better, to dynamically label the map depending on the zoom and recreate several versions automatically from that.

Its really something you need to plan for tho so retro fitting a solution is rarely easy or elegant.

12-21-2009, 09:15 PM
Proper labeling is the hardest part of any map. Seriously. There are so many options and combinations available that it's almost impossible to get it right. Just look at the font options - there are thousands of fonts, I know, I have around 20,000 free ones and only a handful of bought ones. Many people are tempted to put in all sorts of various fonts for various things and while that is fine if you want to add flavor to a map it is often confusing for the viewer. Normally you should do all of your nations in one font, rivers/lakes in another, and mountains/forests in a third. About the most you can really get away with pertains only to fantasy or sci-fi mapping (you will never see this in professional maps or atlases)...1 font for each type of nation. For example if I want my goblins to have some spooky font then I use that same font for everything in their nation but at different size, different style, and different treatments.

Then there are the style options of the font itself - normal, bold, all caps, small caps, italic, stroked, shadowed, underline, bold italic underline small caps, etc. One often overlooked option is the tracking - the space between letters. This is really handy because big fonts that take up a lot of space leave very little space for other stuff so keep your labels small and just spread them out. Another option that is usually ignored by people, because most people don't even know that it exists, is that you can set the scale of the lettering as a percentage of the original size. By this I mean that you can squish letters and make them flatter or skinnier...or taller or fatter for that matter.

Then there are the treatments - color, glow, opacity, stroke, drop shadow, etc. The more you decorate your fonts the more it will detract from the yummy goodness of a fancy terrain. Conversely, a simple map can have fancy lettering. Generally speaking you want your fonts to be colored only if you are using the same font over and over. I could conceivably label a map with 1 font but make it green for parks and forests, brown for mountains and hills and deserts, blue for oceans and rivers and lakes, all caps bold for nations, all caps normal for counties, italic bold for big cities, italic normal for medium cities, italic skinny for small cities, etc. Making your font stand out based on the underlying map colors is a bad idea because you will end up with black fonts and white fonts and that's where the confusion sets in...different colors are meant to mean different things. Instead put a small glow around the font to separate it from the background...either light glow on dark text or dark glow on light text.

All of this being said, the software that you use also plays a part. Not all graphic programs can handle all of these options. Vector programs should be just fine and Photoshop can handle all of these options and more like kerning (space between two given letters), leading (space between lines of text), baseline shift (moving letters up or down from the baseline), strike-through, subscript, superscript, and warped text (like on an arc or curved). Another thing is that the thousands of free fonts out there are not made too well so you will see some really bad kerning and you will have to adjust that yourself and that really takes a lot of time.

But the most important thing regarding labels is this...make it legible. There are thousands of blackletter fonts that look really cool but since we are not used to reading letters in that style we often don't know what the heck they are. My favorite font of all time, Courthand, is almost illegible to people living in this day and age. Heck, fonts from 150 years ago are difficult to read because the s look like an f. Grunge fonts and decorated fonts are also pretty much useless for labeling but they are great for titles. A little bit of flavor can go a long way but too much garlic can ruin the dish.

12-21-2009, 10:03 PM
I went back to looking at the http://www.flashearth.com/ site (which I learned about from Ascension) and seeing how they label things. I think I will try finding a font that looks like it fits with my main label font, but is simpler in design (my main label font is very pretty, but loses legibility when it is made smaller), and use that for geographical features, etc.

Steel General
12-22-2009, 06:34 AM
I went back to looking at the http://www.flashearth.com/ site (which I learned about from Ascension) and seeing how they label things. I think I will try finding a font that looks like it fits with my main label font, but is simpler in design (my main label font is very pretty, but loses legibility when it is made smaller), and use that for geographical features, etc.

That is a good idea...

Whohoo! 6000 posts!

12-22-2009, 07:44 AM
I think the best way to learn how to label a map is to look at maps in atlases and such. If a map must have huge text and small text at once, it's probably best to make a detail map to show the smaller stuff.

As a rule, never use the same font to label the same type object with different sizes. To make the text cover a larger area, increase the spacing between letters rather than scaling up.