I like looking at print maps because they remind me how far web map design has to go. Even an average print map involves a designer making thousands of small decisions about where to place individual features and how to kern and size each label.

You can’t work like that with web maps that are global and zoomable. Even if a designer spent a lifetime on a web map using traditional methods, the designer would never get close to a complete and up to date map. To solve the scale problem, web maps rely on software to automatically fetch, process, and render data. Designers have less control over the results, and when it comes to visual design, an algorithm still can’t beat a human hand.

Learning from print maps

Our cartography team recently spent some time digging through print maps for inspiration. Some of the techniques in these maps could be recreated in Mapbox Studio today, and others would require a bit more hacking to make possible in the future. It’s inspiring to see the diversity with which print cartographers approach map design.


Here are some of my favorite details.


I love how much the pink motorway ramps stand out in this map of Atlanta. Unlike in most web maps, they’re styled totally differently from regular motorways and it works well.


The highly saturated, high-contrast road layers in this map of Ontario let your eye easily switch focus from one level of hierarchy to another. I also appreciate how print maps almost always place cities directly on highway lines.


Look at the knockout label halos in this map of Cincinnati! Polygon backgrounds show through the halo, but lines don’t.


It’s a small detail, but I like how the highway overpasses are styled with an empty gap followed by a short parallel line segment on each side.


In print maps, it’s common to see area labels cover up the full width of the area they describe without blocking any important information from the other layers. I’ve never seen oversized labels pulled off successfully on the web.


The motorway at the bottom is clearly drawn as two parallel lines to represent east- and westbound traffic.


City background fills with no contiguous regions sharing the same background.


Buildings color-coded by category.

Web maps might surpass print maps, but only when we have software that lets designers make even more decisions about the way their maps look and feel.