Design Ideas

Maps are bursting with data and information. How do cartographers entice you to look at their maps and spend time analyzing them? In part, by making them beautiful. Good mapmakers understand what attracts the human eye and what repels it.

For those of you working on exhibits or websites, historic maps can show you how to effectively incorporate color, design, and text into your projects.

Leslie MacDonald Gill, 1935
Leslie MacDonald Gill, 1935

Engaging the eye

Examine the two graphics below (click on them to open zoomable windows). They both compare the heights of the world's tallest mountains.

Tableau Comparatif et Figure de La Hauteur des Principales Montagnes et du
            Cours des Principaux Fleuves due Monde. Paris. Chez J. Goujon & J. Andriveau
            Geographes - Editeurs. Rue du Bac, No. 6, Pres le Pont Royal. 1829. Fleuves graves par
            Dumortier. Les Montagnes par A. Hocquart. La Lettre par Arnoul. (to accompany) Atlas de
            choix ou Recueil de cartes de geographie ancienne et moderne
Comparative View of the Heights of the Principal Mountains &c. in the World. London, Published by C. Smith Mapseller, No.172 Strand, Augt. 1st. 1816. Gardner, Sculpt. (Third Edition)
1816 and 1816.

The print to the left is organized along a strong diagonal. This diagonal gives the print some energy and it also separates the illustrations of the world's longest rivers (above) from those of the tallest mountains (below). The diagonal also makes the print, which is dense with text and information, feel organized and easy to digest.

The print on the right presents its information and data as a landscape. It's a fantasy landscape though as the mountain ranges are made up of the tallest peaks of the Western and Eastern hemispheres. Look at the way Mount Everest breaks the frame at the top right. What a brilliant way to show the astounding heights of the Himalayas.

The image engages the viewer. Imagine if this information, the comparative heights of mountains, had instead been presented as a chart with data. Pictures can draw in our eyes in ways that text and charts cannot.

Use of metaphor

Using metaphors or symbols to arrange information can help your reader understand relationships in your history project or how your subject developed. Does the slice of history you want to write about grow and branch like a tree? Are you tracing a phenomenon that rises and falls and rises like a rollercoaster?

Look at how the statisticians and designers below used metaphor to communicate history.

Miguel Covarrubias, 1940
Miguel Covarrubias, 1940

Miguel Covarrubias here uses the metaphor of a tree to explain the relationships between different art movements of the twentieth century.

Émile Cheysson, 1893
Émile Cheysson, 1893
John Melish, 1813
John Melish, 1813

In the image at left, Émile Cheysson created a graphic that visualized the number of trains running on different railroad lines in a part of France. Thicker lines represent more trains per day.

Perhaps like me, you thought it was a river map when you first saw this image. It looks a lot like the 1813 map of the Detroit River at right. Cheysson's choice of blue was a reference to rivers and it served a function: it reminded his readers of how the railroad was replacing waterways. For most of human history, goods moved along rivers and people settled along their shores; now the railroad would drive trade and settlement.


In the era of the slick and computer-produced, there is something charming and engaging about the look of the old and handmade. Explore maps to find inspiration in interesting color palettes or historic design styles, from Art Nouveau to Modern.

You can also extract illustrations to enhance your project. Visit this online exhibition for more ideas and lovely illustrations that you can use in your projects.