Creating a Map Legend

Understanding map symbols for print and web

Map of Los Angeles
Lonely Planet / Getty Images

Maps and charts use stylized shapes, symbols, and 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 to help you determine distances.

Designing a Map Legend

If you are designing a map and legend, you can use your own symbols and colors or 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, outside of or within the map. If you're placing the legend within the map, set it apart with a distinctive border, and take care not to obscure important areas of the map.

Creating the Map

Before you create the legend, you need the map. Maps tend to be complex, and your challenge is to make yours as simple and clear as possible without omitting any important information.

Most maps contain the same types of elements, including:

  • Title.
  • Legend.
  • Scale.
  • Geographical and topographic features (water, mountains, etc.).
  • Features of particular interest to the viewer (buildings, destinations, temperatures, etc.).
  • Borders.
  • Symbols.
  • Labels.
  • Color-keyed features.
U.S. Plant Hardiness Zone Map
U.S. Plant Hardiness Zone Map. Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture

As you work in your graphics software, use layers to separate the elements and keep them organized. Complete the map before you prepare the legend.

Many software programs such as Microsoft Excel, Powerpoint, and Word, Google Sheets, and many more include simple functions for creating map legends.

Symbol and Color Selection

You don't have to reinvent the wheel with your map and legend. In fact, using traditional symbols can help the viewer understand your map. For example, 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.

If you don't already have the symbols you need in your font file, 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.

Microsoft Map Symbols font family screen

Be consistent in the use of symbols and fonts throughout the map and legend, and make simplicity the overarching goal. Above all, the map and legend must be reader-friendly, useful, and accurate.

Styles vary, but typically, a legend consists of just a simple table, with the symbols in one column and their meaning in the other. Keep in mind these tips:

  • Double-check that the legend includes all the symbols used on the map; likewise, don't include any that aren't being used. Clutter is visually distracting.
  • Simplicity can't be stressed enough. This isn't the time for a fancy design.
  • The style of the legend should match the style of the map itself, in terms of colors, fonts, and overall feel.