Keep your maps conventional

Marketers use maps on websites and other communications materials to indicate the locations of businesses and events. That’s good thing for the visual learners out there.

Sometimes, though, those marketers shoot themselves in the foot by ignoring the conventions that have become common in mapmaking over the centuries.

For example, professional mapmakers indicate bodies of water, such as rivers or lakes, in blue (and usually a light blue). We’ve become conditioned to associate water with the color blue. It’s what our brains expect to see. If you use a different color, it rattles the brain and interferes with our understanding. Instead of instinctively knowing we’re looking at something wet, we have to think about it.

Similarly, those of us who call the Northern Hemisphere home are accustomed to maps in which north is at the top, south at the bottom, west at left, and east at right. Most mapmakers (and GPS sources) do exactly that. But some designers of marketing materials are either unaware of this convention (or just dislike being told what to do), so they twist their maps so one of the other directions is at the top. All that does is confuse users and make the map less useful.

Map symbols have also become standardized. Since the Interstate system was started, Interstate highways have been designated by a rounded shield that’s mostly blue, with a red top that has three points. Other U.S. highways are represented by a different type of shield and normally presented in black and white. Each state has its own state highway symbols. Because all those symbols have become so familiar, it makes sense to use them when creating maps. Here again, though, some marketers just assume one symbol is the same as the other, so they’ll confuse someone who’s looking for Interstate 25 when they should be looking for State Route 25.

Conventions like colors, symbols, and alignment exist because they’re traditional and familiar. So if you’re going to be kind enough to customers to give them a map, please be kind enough to create the map using the symbols and styles they’ll recognize.