The Fine Art of Cartography

Maybe it’s my love of travel. Or maybe it’s a carryover from childhood when I hogged the roadmap on family vacations. Whatever the reason, designing maps has always been a favorite project. Happily, I have two in the works.

Cartography is defined as the science of drawing maps. One might think this is a dying thing, but apparently we still love a tangible representation of spacial sense (oh, how poetic). While I certainly don’t give myself the eminent title of cartographer, I am taking liberties in rephrasing the definition to “the art and science of drawing maps.” After all, there’s exquisite form that goes along with the function of a well drawn map. Case in point: the vintage map collection we found in the attic of our 1917 American Foursquare.

Besides being a scrapbooking queen, the elderly woman from whom we bought our house was also a former one-room schoolteacher. Among the many treasures bequeathed to us was a wooden case filled with early 20th century maps. My graphic designer’s heart swoons at the beauty of both the maps and case (yes, we cleaned it up—Antiques Roadshow to the wind) .


Color is one of the most powerful tools in a designer’s arsenal, both for creating a mood and communicating a message. Cartographers use color as a convenient way to organize information; for example in the map above, the U.S. states are easily distinguished by their contrasting colors. Because one of my projects is to be vintage-looking, I took shades from this map.


Oh my, what can I say. I weep with joy at the beauty of these A’s, E’s, F’s and R’s. Okay, that’s a little dramatic, but they are simply gorgeous, are they not? I’ve been hunting for a similar font but it’s possible they’re hand-lettered (here’s an interesting story on pre-1930s cartography).

Type can be a cartographer’s challenge. The average map carries a profusion of labels, each fitting into various levels of hierarchy. Yet all of them must be legible, even at tiny, tiny sizes. Type, like color, also conveys a style. Choice of type is crucial.


Designing legends and informational graphics is part of mapmaking. Look at this—data according to the 1900 census. Isn’t that amazing? Maps are effective educators of both geographical and historical space.

So what about these projects I’m working on? Stay tuned, I’m leaving you in suspense. I hope you like them as much as I enjoy doing them!

1 thought on “The Fine Art of Cartography”

  1. This is simply fascinating, Di. Who knew!?

    You didn’t overstate your gushing regarding the beautiful fonts. I also cheer inwardly when I stumble upon a beautiful, unexpected font style.

    My curiosity is definitely piqued. ☺️



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