Creating a Map Legend

Key to understanding map symbols for print and web

Map of Los Angeles
Lonely Planet / Getty Images

Maps and charts use stylized shapes and symbols as well as common map colors to designate features such as mountains, highways, and cities. The legend is a small box or table on the map that explains the meanings of those symbols. The legend may also include a map scale for help in determining distances.

Designing a Map Legend

If you are designing a map and legend, you may come up with your own symbols and colors or you may rely on standard sets of icons, depending on the purpose of your illustration. Legends usually appear near the bottom of a map or around the outer edges. They may be placed outside or within the map. If placing the legend within the map, set it apart with a distinctive frame or border and don't cover up any important portions of the map.

While the style can vary, a typical legend has a column with the symbol followed by a column describing what that symbol represents.

  • Position the legend on the map and include all the symbols used on the map in the legend.
  • Keep the legend (and the map) as simple and easy to read as possible. This isn't the time for a fancy design.
  • The style of the legend should match the style of the map itself.

Creating the Map

Before you create the legend, you need the map. Maps are complex graphics. The designer's challenge is to make them as simple and clear as possible without omitting any important information. Most maps contain the same types of elements, but a designer controls how they are presented visually. Those elements include:

  • Title
  • Legend
  • Scale
  • Mapped areas (objects, land, water)
  • Borders
  • Symbols 
  • Labels

As you work in your graphics software, use layers to separate the different types of elements and to organize what can end up being a complicated file. Complete the map before you prepare the legend.

Symbol and Color Selection

You don't have to reinvent the wheel with your map and legend. It may be best for your reader if you don't. Highways and roads are usually represented by lines of various widths, depending on the size of the road, and are accompanied by interstate or route labels. Water is usually indicated by the color blue. Dashed lines indicate borders. An airplane indicates an airport.

Examine your symbols' fonts. You may already have what you need for your map, or you can search online for a map font or a PDF that illustrates the various map symbols. Microsoft makes a map symbol font. The National Park Service offers map symbols that are free and in the public domain.

Be consistent in the use of symbols and fonts throughout the map and legend — and simplify, simplify, simplify. The goal is to make the map and legend reader-friendly, useful, and accurate.