Everybody loves maps, which makes them an attractive tool for journalists. Geography professors Sébastien Caquard and William Cartwright have analysed the relationship between maps and narratives, and they agree that maps are an extraordinary tool to explain stories.

“The potential of maps to both decipher and tell stories is virtually unlimited. Maps can contribute to leaving cartographic traces, making these experiences more visible and more tangible.”

A lot of data include geographical information, and the first instinct can be to put it on a map. Nevertheless, the fact that data can be mapped does not mean that they must be mapped.

Maps can lose all their effectiveness if they are used as a simple visual ornament, rather than to fulfil the purpose of the story.

How to know when a map is the best format? How to improve your maps to be more intelligible? Here you have some tips and best practices from experts to get the best out of your maps.

1. It’s all about Location

Since a map indicates that the story has a strong relationship with a place, the geographical location should be central to the significance of the story.

When the interesting patterns aren’t geographic patterns, a map is not the best choice, says Matthew Ericson in his blog.

2. The audience, your best guide

The first step when designing the structure of a story is to think about the users and how they will access it.

Some of the key questions are: could the audience understand better the story if there is a map? Could the users access the data more easily? Would the story be more appealing? If the answer is “yes”, you definitely need a map!

3. Use the right cartography

Make sure your maps are as clear and user-friendly as possible, while incorporating cartography that matches your project.

For example, satellite imagery has a strong visual impact but is not always the most appropriate option, as it can unnecessarily overload the visualization. In many cases, a simple grey background map might be the best choice.

4. Simplicity

The more you do to remove nonessential elements, the more likely you are to tell an effective story. This tip is easy to remember: the simpler, the better.

5. The importance of shapes and symbols

At a NICAR conference in 2013, Dave Cole, John Keefe and Matt Stiles taught a workshop about best mapping practices that it is worth having a look at.

They recommend selecting every element on the map carefully because every shape contributes to the content. Points, polygons or lines cannot be included as random elements, but have to be chosen according to the story.

Proportional symbols should not be used if they might be confused with area sizes, like in this map:

Some readers could think that all the fires burned in perfect circles matching these sizes, which obviously was not the case. Avoid any misunderstanding.

6. Colour matters

Tiny design decisions can radically alter the way elements are displayed and perceived by readers, says Christopher Ingraham in this article. 

Colour is one of the most important aspects. Imagine a map showing the victims of a war in bright and positive colours. This would contradict the meaning, and the map simply wouldn’t work visually.

The colours should be consistent with the purpose of our story as well as the rest of the elements.

7. Tools

If you are starting to create your own maps, some of the best tools you can use are CartoDB and Google Fusion Tables. You can also get simple and effective maps with Google Maps.

If you have some knowledge of JavaScript, you can also use Mapbox with hundreds of options to customise your maps.

Bonus tips

Do you have any other tips? Do you have examples of best practices when mapping? Leave a comment or share your thoughts on twitter @carlapedret.