25 Examples of Map Types for Cartographic Inspiration
I’m a big fan of using different map types.
Unfortunately, the best ones are often overlooked.
But not today.
Because today we’ll review 25 types of maps that make a huge difference to the map reader.
Each of which you can easily add to your mapping repertoire.
…And remember if you ever want to learn how to communicate data more effectively, make sure to take a look at our 10 Data Visualization Certification and Courses.
1. Firefly maps
Firefly maps use lightsaber-glowing symbology with a dark desaturated backdrop. Its greatest strengths are its cinematic effects and glowing appeal.
For example, their radiance stands out for earthquake events, transportation networks, and population clusters maps.
2. Dot maps
Dot maps scatter dots in an area based on value. More dots means a higher value. And vice versa.
Dot maps don’t necessarily show the exact location. They randomly spread out points in a given area best for showing density differences across regions.
3. Graduated symbols
Graduated symbol maps resize symbols based on value. For example, a small coffee cup pictogram represents low consumption and vice versa.
Symbols include circles, pictograms, and volumetric shapes. For depicting quantity differences, graduated symbol maps are a useful choice.
4. Vector direction maps
Vector direction maps rotate symbols based on the angle. For example, wind maps use vector arrows that spin how the wind blows.
If you want to depict wind speed, you adjust the size of the arrows. For example, large arrows depict big gusts of wind.
5. Distributive flow
Distributive flow maps curl like fingers branching off to their destination depicting direction and movement.
Although it’s not necessarily the accurate route being traveled, it’s an abstract way how commodities or information travels from an origin to multiple destinations.
6. Density-equalizing cartograms
Density-equalizing (contiguous) cartograms are your traditional cartograms.
Like all cartograms, they bulge the size of geographic areas from representative values. Although it distorts each feature, each feature remains connected.
7. Voronoi diagram
Voronoi diagrams best understand the proximity and distance of features. It starts with seed points that divide regions for each point.
Each region shows the closest region for a point. So If you place a point in any region, then it’s the closest to that seed point.
Choropleth maps vary the shading of each area based on its value. It’s one of the most common map types because they’re easy to understand and add a bit of color.
They’re different from heat maps because they require a geographic boundary. We assume the entire boundary is homogeneous with its assigned shading.
9. Heat Maps (Point-density)
Heat maps color-code using the density of points. For example, if there is a high density of crimes in an area, it shades the area as red.
But fewer crimes are assigned a blue shading. By using this type of map, you can pinpoint the safest and most dangerous places in a city. And they’re not tied to a boundary like choropleth maps.
Isochrone maps reveal the geographic extent to which one can travel. If you start at a given point, it shades how far you can travel within an amount of time.
For example, fire stations measure their drive-time distances using a city’s road network. If they know which areas they have difficulty providing service for, it gives insight into where to build new fire stations.
Dasymetric and choropleth maps are both thematic mapping techniques. But dasymetric maps classify quantitative aerial data.
For example, the population can be aggregated into areal census tracts. In a dasymetric map, each census tract is assumed to be homogenous.
12. Space-time cubes
Space-Time cubes are slices of time stacked up in a three-dimensional space. Older time cubes are on the bottom. New slices of time are on top.
So they’re ideal to show how values change in geographic space. For usability, it takes time to get accustomed to it. But in terms of 4D mapping techniques, it’s one of a kind.
Topographic maps are all-purpose maps. Generally, they include terrain, and natural and man-made features. From topographic surveys, we construct these map types.
Fast-forward to today, they still hold tremendous value in infrastructure, military, and resource planning.
14. Contour (Isolines)
Contour maps have lines with constant values joining points of equal elevation.
If contour lines are closely-spaced together, the terrain is steep. But if they are widely-spaced apart, it’s a gradual incline.
15. Data visualizations
Data viz meet maps. When you put bar graphs, pie charts, and line plots on maps, suddenly statistics have a location.
And the saying goes: without geography, you’re nowhere. So with Tableau-style visualizations, you put data visualizations on the map.
16. Non-contiguous cartogram
Non-contiguous cartograms resize features based on values and keep their shape intact. But features don’t have to stay connected.
They can freely move to scatter them like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. So features scale up or down according to value. But the tradeoff is that you lose their precise placement.
17. Dorling cartogram
The Dorling cartogram uses shapes like circles and rectangles to depict the area. By using shapes, it’s easier to recognize patterns.
But its main weakness is that you lose its geographic reference. It can get to such a point that you don’t know what you’re looking at.
18. Surface maps
Surface maps take a set of known values. Then, they create a surface predicting the unknown ones in between.
This 3D surface (isopleth) is common for rainfall, temperature, and elevation. They differ from choropleth maps because they’re not tied to a geographic boundary or region.
Schematics significantly simplifies maps. For example, subway maps, traffic lights, and electric networks use schematics as a simplified view.
At a cost, schematics lose orientation and a true base map. But readers can gain greater clarity.
20. Network flow
Network flow maps show movement along with an established network. For example, flight paths, transportation networks, and communication systems use network flow maps.
The purpose is to display the traffic on the map. For instance, thick lines have a denser flow. But thin lines have less traffic.
21. Coxcomb chart (Polar area chart)
The coxcomb chart is a twist on the pie chart. Like petals on a flower, each petal is packed with single or multiple slices of information.
For example, petals in a coxcomb chart can radially display months of a year. If the petals are large, it has a higher quantity like this wildlife bird strike map.
22. Timeslice maps
Timeslice maps portray a journey by dividing the map canvas into chunks of time. For example, the path of a tsunami divides the map canvas in minutes.
Napoleon’s March is a timeslice map in three dimensions over days. These types of maps are hard to implement but extremely effective at communicating time.
READ MORE: Epic Web Maps – The Maps Hall of Fame
23. Hexagonal Binning
Rather than square grids, the future of mapping is hexagons. Actually, circles make the best grids because their perimeter has equal distances from a center point.
Overall, this reduces sampling bias. But you can’t connect neighboring circles into a continuous grid. So this is why we use hexbins for sampling which resemble circles.
24. Word (typography) maps
Word maps assign dominant keywords to features filling in the area of the map.
Word placement is key for this type of map in terms of rotation, scaling, and skewing. Large words suggest an influential topic. Whereas small words put less emphasis on a keyword.
25. Radial flow
In radial flow maps, lines radiate from an origin. They radiate outwards to single or multiple destination nodes.
Each hub links the movement of a phenomenon. It has a directional flow line which is often in a radial pattern.
All hail the cartographer
Cartographers are heroes in any organization.
And every hero has a secret.
Don’t go through life keeping yours hidden :)
Let these map types help you discover your full potential to become the hero you’ve always wanted to be.
So which map types are you eyeing in your next masterpiece?
Let us know with a comment below.