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These Stunning Maps Highlight the Tricks in a Cartographer’s Toolkit

The 10 techniques that help convert our 3-D world into maps.

46.0167° N, 7.7500° E, Bundesamt für Landestopografie, Zermatt, 1997. Scale 1:25,000 (shown at half size)


46.0167° N, 7.7500° E, Bundesamt für Landestopografie, Zermatt, 1997. Scale 1:25,000 (shown at half size)
. Cartographic Grounds, Princeton Architectural Press. (Photo: Harvard Map Collection/Harvard Library/Harvard University) 

When cartographers create maps, they are faced with an extremely difficult challenge: They must lay out our complex world on a flat surface. In many ways, cartographers need to be visual translators, devising the best ways to communicate space and geography.

“Good cartographers do an amazing job of synthesizing an incredible amount of geographical information into an accessible and legible depiction of the surface of the earth,” says Harvard landscape architecture professor Jill Desimini. “They don’t just see the world; they see the relationship between the visual information offered by the world and the languages used in maps.”

Desimini and fellow Harvard professor Charles Waldheim explore 10 conventions that are essential to map making in the upcoming book Cartographic Grounds: Projecting the Landscape Imaginary. The book, set to be released on June 14, contains 275 pages of vivid maps with explanations detailing the methods used by their cartographers. 

Today, there is an immense pool of raw data to swim through, but in the early days, map designers were often trying to depict unknown lands. Cartographers in medieval times had to imagine and visualize lands that had yet to be explored, Mohsen Mostafavi, Dean of Harvard Graduate School of Design, explains in the book’s forward. While their maps, mappa mundi, were based more on fiction, they were the most accurate renderings of world at the time and they helped shape European intellectual life for more than 300 years.

81.3500° S, 163.0000° E, United States Geological Survey (USGS), Nimrod Glacier, Topographic Reconnaissance Maps of Antarctica, 1963.

81.3500° S, 163.0000° E, United States Geological Survey (USGS), Nimrod Glacier, Topographic Reconnaissance Maps of Antarctica, 1963. (Photo: USGS)

These days, the array of geographic technology has enabled cartographers, architects, and designers to harness and process this data and create maps that are closer to real landscapes than ever before. But according to Desimini, visualizing data doesn’t always call for interpretation, which can be a problem. “Since we can show more, we tend to do it without as many questions about what should or should not make it on the map or drawing. In a sense, we have lost some of our critical and aesthetic attitude,” she says.

That’s not to say data and technology aren’t needed to ensure accuracy. Maps must retain geographic fidelity, scale, and projection, says Desimini, but the best ones also have a visual clarity and graphic integrity equivalent to any art form. The 10 cartographic conventions can help lead to more beautiful and informative maps, adding to the richness and diversity of representations of our world.  

“I’m hoping these maps can stoke our imaginations, can help us see more deeply the sheer diversity of our landscapes and to be able to see them, draw them, read them and design them in as many responsible and even beautiful ways,” she says.

1. Sounding / Spot Elevation

37.7166° N, 122.2830° W, Alexander Dallas Bache, Entrance to San Francisco Bay California, 1859.

37.7166° N, 122.2830° W, Alexander Dallas Bache, Entrance to San Francisco Bay California, 1859. (Photo: Harvard Map Collection/Harvard Library/Harvard University)

This cartographic component includes two measurements for showing depths and heights above and below sea level. “Soundings” pinpoint depths of water and are noted by a number on a nautical chart, while “spot elevations” are the numbers that show the position and altitude. 

In this map, Alexander Dallas Bache, a cartographer who ran the NOAA Coast Survey from 1843 to 1867, rendered the San Francisco urban coastline, using spot elevations to depict the water’s edge.

2. Isobath / Contour

18.4517° N, 66.0689° W, 
James Corner Field Operations, University of Puerto Rico Botanical Gardens, 2003–6. Scale: 1:2,500 (shown at half size)


18.4517° N, 66.0689° W, James Corner Field Operations, University of Puerto Rico Botanical Gardens, 2003–6. Scale: 1:2,500 (shown at half size). (Photo: © James Corner Field Operations)

Isobaths and contours are lines that connect points of equal value on maps, showing the morphology of the ground. The map of the University of Puerto Rico Botanical Gardens show a series of color ribbons and swaths that represent the topography.  

3. Hachure / Hatch

6.2359° N, 75.5751° W,
Gustavus Bechler, Map of the Sources of Snake River, 1872.


6.2359° N, 75.5751° W, Gustavus Bechler, Map of the Sources of Snake River, 1872. (Photo: Harvard Map Collection/Harvard Library/Harvard University) 


This convention is a series of short lines that perpendicularly fill the space between contours and show slope, shadow, relief, and texture. Topographer Gustavus Bechler designed this map of the sources of Snake River, which has hachures, or reliefs, that are “particularly soft and warm, allowing ridgelines to dissipate into plateaus,” Desimini and Waldheim write.

4. Shaded Relief

22.3000° N, 114.1667° E, 
Zaha Hadid, The Peak, 1982–83.

22.3000° N, 114.1667° E, Zaha Hadid, The Peak, 1982–83. (Photo: Zaha Hadid Architects)

Shaded relief is the depiction of shadows with tonal gradients. This marks changes in elevation and landform in raised relief maps and models. The Blue Slabs painting from late architect Zaha Hadid’s The Peak shows an abstract block colorization of the sprawling city of Hong Kong. The shadows make the building beams look like they are flying from the cliffs.  

5. Land Classification

37.6374° N, 122.3601° W,
LSU Coastal Sustainability Studio, Bayou Bienvenue, 2010.

37.6374° N, 122.3601° W, LSU Coastal Sustainability Studio, Bayou Bienvenue, 2010. (Photo: LSU Coastal Sustainability Studio)

This is the taxonomic method of describing spatial distribution of vegetation and agronomic land uses. It’s used to distinguish types of soil, vegetation, and activity. The image of greater New Orleans codes different projected land uses with colors and patterns.

6. Figure-Ground

40.7145° N, 74.0071° W,
Herman Bollmann, New York, 1962.

40.7145° N, 74.0071° W, Herman Bollmann, New York, 1962. (Photo: © Bollmann-Bildkarten-Verlag, Braunschweig, Germany/Harvard Map Collection/Harvard Library/Harvard University)

This technique helps distinguish space, usually urban spaces, from other entities, such as a building and the rest of the urban environment. In this 1962 map created by German cartographer and graphic artist Herman Bollmann, the aerial view of New York City shows the high-rises without blocking the ground and streets. The map was made for the New York World’s Fair.

7. Stratigraphic Column

48.8742° N, 2.3470° E,
Service Géologique des Mines, Paris et Ses Environs, 1890.

48.8742° N, 2.3470° E, Service Géologique des Mines, Paris et Ses Environs, 1890. (Photo: The David Rumsey Map Collection)

Stratigraphic columns rely on color to show locations of rocks, visualize geologic time, and signify soil and sediment type. This extremely elaborate 1890 geological map of Paris shows known, invented, and hidden layers of underground rock with the city above.   

8. Cross Section

48.8742° N, 2.3470° E,
Robert Gerard Pietrusko, Animation Still, 2012. (Photo: Robert Gerard Pietrusko)

A cross section is a vertical slice through the Earth’s surface, which specifies elevation, depth, and structural and material composition.

9. Line Symbol

45.5547° N, 69.2466° W, The Appalachian Trail Conference, Guide to the Appalachian Trail in Maine. (Washington, DC: The Appalachian Trail Conference, 1936). (Photo: The Frances Loeb Library/Harvard University Graduate School of Design/The Appalachian Trail Conservancy)

This cartographic convention marks off boundaries, borders, property lines, rivers, infrastructures, and routes. In this map of the Appalachian Trail in Maine, lines distinguish roads and trails from streams and mountains

10. Conventional Sign

35.1559° N, 136.0599° E, Tonsai Fujita, Ezo Kokyo Yochi Zenzu, Tonsai Fujita Royo, Hashimoto Ransi Shukuzu, 1854.

35.1559° N, 136.0599° E, Tonsai Fujita, Ezo Kokyo Yochi Zenzu, Tonsai Fujita Royo, Hashimoto Ransi Shukuzu, 1854. (Photo: The Library of Congress Geography and Map Division)

These are symbols or icons that denote different entities on map, such as schools, churches, highways, restaurants, or airports. This map of the Ezo region of Japan (now Hokkaido), illustrated in 1854, has yellow circles along the coast line that mark cardinal directions.

The cover of Cartographic Grounds: Projecting the Landscrape Imaginary. (Photo: Princeton Architectural Press)

Map Monday highlights interesting and unusual cartographic pursuits from around the world and through time. Read more Map Monday posts.