Cartography Glossary

The world of cartography is a complicated one. To iron out any doubts we crafted this glossary of terms you might have come across. It explains common cartographic terms in easy language and tries to leave no doubts. Have fun diving into the world of cartography.



Address map

Address maps are the simplest form of location maps, usually showing the location and surroundings of a postal address.


As with other illustrations, print maps needed to be credited properly. Usually the copyright holder and the data source are to be attributed. In the case of the proper attribution is “© / OSM contributors”.




Bathymetry is the science of measuring water depths (usually in the ocean) to determine bottom topography. Bathymetric maps visually show water depths.

Bike map, cycle map

Bikemaps help cyclists find their ways through cities and in the countryside. They show bicycle infrastructure such as cycleways and tracks, bike lanes, bike paths, bike routes, and include cycling specific information such as bike shops, bike rental or bicycle repair. The most prominent collection of bike maps worldwide is Cycle maps are usually topographic or terrain maps.



Cadastral map

Cadastral maps show the boundaries of subdivisions of land, often with the bearings and lengths thereof and the areas of individual tracts, for purposes of describing and recording ownership. They may also show culture, drainage, and other features relating to land use and value.

City map

City maps are large-scale thematic maps of a town or city that enable the fastest possible orientation in that urban space. The visual representation of objects on city maps is usually simplified and reduced to symbology that is generally understood. Depending on its target group or target market, city maps will include the city’s transport network and/or other relevant information such as sights or public institutions.

Choropleth map

Thematic map in which areas are colored, shaded, dotted, or hatched to create darker or lighter areas in proportion to the density of distribution of the theme subject.

CMYK color model

CMYK is a subtractive color model used in color printing. You’ll notice that the Printmaps logo is modelled after the CMYK color palette. CMYK refers to the four inks used in some color printing: cyan, magenta, yellow, and “key” (black).  Digital data is usually coded in the RGB color model.

Contour lines

Imaginary lines on ground, all points of which are at the same elevation above or below a specific datum.

Corporate design (CD)

A corporate design is the official graphical design of the logo and name of a company or institution used on the website, on letterheads, envelopes, forms, business cards, folders, brochures and other print material. Often the corporate design of a company needs to be reflected in the map design used in corporate material.


See Attribution.

Custom map

Customized maps or tailored maps are cartographic services for a single purpose or a single customer. Traditionally a custom map involved close interaction between a client and a map company, professional map makers or a cartographic publishing companies. Nowadays online services such as provide convenient access to online custom map editors.

Cycle map

See bike map.



Datums are reference systems for computing or correlating the results of geographic surveys. There are two types of datums: vertical and horizontal. A vertical datum is a level surface to which heights are being referred. In the United States, the generally adopted vertical datum for levelling operations is the National Geodetic Vertical Datum of 1929. The horizontal datum is used as a reference for position. The North American Datum of 1927 is defined by the latitude and longitude of an initial point (Meade’s Ranch in Kansas), the direction of a line between this point and a specified second point, and two dimensions that define the spheroid. The new North American Datum of 1983 is based on a newly defined spheroid (GRS80); it is an Earth-centered datum having no initial point or initial direction.

Deutsche Gesellschaft für Kartographie

The Deutsche Gesellschaft für Kartographie (DGfK) is a cartographic society based in Germany. It has about 1,600 members, mainly professional cartographers and fans of cartography.

Digital clean-up

Digital clean-up is the production of printable files (usually PDF, AI, EPS, IDD, FH, PSD or PNG files) that can be handed over to print shops or printers. The quality of the digital clean-up depends on the printing method used. Software used for digital clean-up ranges from Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop and InDesign to Freehand or Inkscape.

Directional map, directions map

Direction maps are used to help visitors and customers find a specific place. They include directions specific to that place, usually by car, public transport or foot.


DPI stands for “Dots per inch”. It is used to describe the resolution number of dots per inch in a digital print and the printing resolution of a hard copy print dot gain, which is the increase in the size of the halftone dots during printing. Professional printing mainly uses values between 300 dpi and 600 dpi.

Driving map

See Directional map.



The elevation of a place is usually displayed in maps using contour lines and (or) hillshading. Elevation is digitally stored in DEM (digital elevation models), derived from laserscan images obtained by airplanes.



Folding map

Everybody knows folding maps that guide us through cities and places but did you know that there are countless ways to fold a map? The mathematics of map folding is subject of vast scientific publications.




Geodesy is the science concerned with the measurement and mathematical description of the size and shape of the earth and its gravitational fields. Geodesy also includes the large-scale, extended surveys for determining positions and elevations of points, in which the size and shape of the earth must be taken into account.

Google Maps

Many people use screenshots from Google Maps™ in their print products. You might have guessed it already: That’s illegal. You are allowed to print Google Maps for your personal use but not to use Google Maps in any publication. Apart from the legal issues printing screenshots usually results in pixelated / low-res map images.


The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a space-based radionavigation system owned by the United States government and operated by the US Air Force. It is a global navigation satellite system that provides geolocation and time information to a GPS receiver anywhere on or near the Earth where there is an unobstructed line of sight to four or more GPS satellites. GPS devices often store recorded data in GPX file format.


The file format GPX, short for GPS Exchange Format, is an XML schema designed as a common GPS data format for software applications. It can be used to describe waypoints, tracks, and routes. The format is open and can be used without the need to pay license fees. Location data (and optionally elevation, time, and other information) is stored in tags and can be interchanged between GPS devices and software. Most GPS devices can save data as GPX files. You can also use online geodata converter to convert your file type to GPX.

Guidebook map

Guidebook maps are thematic maps used in guidebooks and tourist guides.


Highway map

Highway maps are high-level street maps used to visualise long-distance road networks.

Hiking map

Hiking maps are topographic maps with specific hiking route information, including trail difficulty, access, shelters and infrastructure information for walking purposes in remote areas. 


Hill shading is a technique for making topography on a map appear three dimensional by the use of graded shadow effects. Generally, the features are shaded as though illuminated from the northwest.




The ICA (International Cartographic Association or “Association Cartographique Internationale, ACI” in French) is an organization formed of national member organizations, to provide a forum for issues and techniques in cartography and GIScience.

Illustrational map, map illustration

Illustrational maps are used as visual storytelling in books, articles and magazines. The focus of map illustrations is more design-oriented.


Adobe Illustrator is a vector graphics editor developed and marketed by Adobe. It produces AI files but can also handle SVG and EPS files. Illustrator is very popular among map makers.

Image rectification

Image rectification converts images (usually aerial photos or old maps) to a standard map coordinate system. This is done by matching ground control points  in the mapping system to points in the image. These points calculate necessary image transforms.

Index map

Index maps are overview maps in smaller scales with reduced contents. They are often used to show the locations of more detailed maps in a larger area.


Isochrone maps (isochrone plan, isochrone diagram) are maps often used inurban planning, showing lines connecting points that have the same time distance to the centerpoint.  In hydrology and transportation planning isochrone maps are commonly used to depict areas of equal travel time.

Isoline, Isopleth

See Contour lines.




Johannes Janssonius (1588 – 1664) was a Dutch cartographer and publisher who lived and worked in Amsterdam in the 17th century.




The map key or map legend describes how to interpret the map’s symbols and may give details of publication and authorship.


It is generally important that you understand the licence terms of the maps you use. Many map providers limit the type of use (commercial or non-commercial), the print circulation and the attribution requirements. The Printmaps licence was drafted to be easy-to-understand and practical. See the Terms of Use for details.

Locator map

Locator maps are typically simple maps used to show the location of a particular geographic area within its larger and presumably more familiar context. Depending on the needs of the cartographer, this type of map can be used on its own or as an inset or addition to a larger map.


Angular distance, in degrees, minutes, and seconds, of a point east or west of the Greenwich meridian.


Magnetic declination

Magnetic declination or variation is the angle on the horizontal plane between magnetic north (the direction the north end of a compass needle points, corresponding to the direction of the Earth’s magnetic field lines) and true north (the direction along a meridian towards the geographic North Pole). This angle varies depending on position on the Earth’s surface, and changes over time.


Mapbox is a large provider of custom online maps for websites, based in Boston, USA. Mapbox is the creator of, or a significant contributor to some open source mapping libraries and applications, including the MBTiles specification, the TileMill cartography IDE, the Leaflet JavaScript library, and the CartoCSS map styling language and parser.

Map legend

See Legend.


Maptoolkit is a set of GIS-APIs provided by Toursprung GmbH, based in Constance, Germany and Vienna, Austria. It provides large scale digital projects in the web and mobile app space with cartography, routing, geocoding and geodata hosting.

Mercator projection

The Mercator projection is a cylindrical map projection presented by the Flemish geographer and cartographer Gerardus Mercator in 1569. It became the standard map projection for nautical purposes because of its ability to represent lines of constant course, known as rhumb lines or loxodromes, as straight segments that conserve the angles with the meridians. Although the linear scale is equal in all directions around any point, thus preserving the angles and the shapes of small objects (which makes the projection conformal), the Mercator projection distorts the size of objects as the latitude increases from the Equator to the poles, where the scale becomes infinite. So, for example, landmasses such as Greenland and Antarctica appear much larger than they actually are relative to land masses near the equator, such as Central Africa.


Great circle on the surface of the Earth passing through the geographical poles and any given point on the Earth’s surface. All points on a given meridian have the same longitude.



National Geographic Society

National Geographic is one of the largest non-profit geographic institutions in the world. The National Geographic Society (NGS) is headquartered in Washington, D.C., United States and was founded in 1888. Beside National Geographic maps, NGS publishes magazine and runs television channels.



OpenStreetMap (OSM) is a collaborative project to create a free editable map of the world. The creation and growth of OSM has been motivated by restrictions on use or availability of map information across much of the world, and the advent of inexpensive portable satellite navigation devices. OSM is considered the most prominent example of volunteered geographic information and has become the status-quo data provider outside the world of proprietary GIS data.

Ordnance Survey (OS)

Ordnance Survey is the national mapping agency in the United Kingdom, covering the island of Great Britain. It is one of the world’s largest producers of maps. Ordnance Survey Ltd is a government-owned company, 100% in public ownership.


Orthophotos or orthoimages are aerial photographs or images geometrically corrected (“orthorectified”) such that the scale is uniform: the photo has the same lack of distortion as a map. Unlike an uncorrected aerial photograph, an orthophotograph can be used to measure true distances, because it is an accurate representation of the Earth’s surface, having been adjusted for topographic relief, lens distortion, and camera tilt.



Park map

Park maps are thematic maps of national parks, leisure parks or amusement parks.


The Portable Document Format (PDF) is a file format established by Adobe and used to present documents in a manner independent of application software, hardware, and operating systems. Each PDF file encapsulates a complete description of a fixed-layout flat document, including the text, fonts, graphics, and other information needed to display it.


The science of making measurements from photographs, especially for recovering the exact positions of surface points.


Adobe Photoshop is a raster graphics editor developed and published by Adobe. Alongside other Adobe applications it is widely used for professional print publications. It typically produces layered PSD files containing mainly bitmaps.

Printable map

Maps suited for printing need to be either high-res bitmaps in 300 dpi or more or vector files such as EPS, AI or PDF. Besides, common providers of printable maps include, Castamap, 123map, Hubermedia / Falk or


Orderly system of lines on a plane representing a corresponding system of imaginary lines on an adopted terrestrial or celestial datum surface. Also, the mathematical concept for such a system. For maps of the Earth, a projection consists of 1) a graticule of lines representing parallels of latitude and meridians of longitude or 2) a grid.




QGIS stands for Quantum GIS, an open source application for viewing, composing, and editing digital map data.



Real estate map

Real estate maps are maps that show the surrounding and location of a property for sale or rent.

Recreational map, recreation map

See Touristic map.

Regional map, region map

Regional maps often span various administrative areas to show a region defined by demographics, natural landforms, demographics or individual criteria such as a company’s trading area.

Relief shading

See Hillshading.

Remote sensing

Process of detecting and (or) monitoring chemical or physical properties of an area by measuring its reflected and emitted radiation.

RGB color model

RGB is an additive color model in which red, green and blue light are added together in various ways to reproduce a broad array of colours. The name of the model comes from the initials of these three colors. RGB is used for digital representation of maps, while printed maps are color coded in CMYK.

Road map

See Street map.

Route map

Route maps are mainly used in tourism or for outdoor activities. They show city walks, itineraries, cycle routes or hiking trails. Hillshading is useful for route maps in hilly or mountainous areas.




A scale is the relation between a distance on a map to the real distance in nature. A scale is usually displayed as a relation information such as 1:50,000.
The bigger the number the smalle the scale and the lower the information density on the map.


Signatures are symbols or icons for the display of objects or facts in maps. There are point, line and area signatures. The meaning of signatures is listed in the map legend.

Signpost map

Signpost maps are maps on physical signposts that show your current position in an environment or along a route. (See route maps.)

Street map

Street maps or road maps are maps that primarily displays streets and transport links instead of natural geographical information. They are types of navigational maps that commonly include political boundaries and labels, making them types of political maps as well. In addition to streets and boundaries, a street map usually includes points of interest (POIs) such as prominent buildings or businesses, tourism sites, parks or recreational facilities, airports and train stations, as well as hotels and restaurants. A street map may also show non-automotive transit routes, though some times these are found only on transit maps. Collections of road or street maps are usually called street atlas or road atlas.



Thematic map

Map designed to provide information on a single topic, such as geology, rainfall or population.

Topographic map, topo map

Topo maps present the horizontal and vertical positions of the features represented; distinguished from a planimetric map by the addition of relief in measurable form. Topo maps usually use contour lines and/or hillshading.

Touristic map, tourism map

Touristic maps display features specifically relevant to travellers: Accomodation, restaurants, sights, monuments or places of touristic activity.

Trail map

See route map.

Transit map

Transit maps are topological maps, usually in the form of schematic diagrams. They illustrate the routes and the stations within a public transport network, usually tramways, bus lines, subway/metro lines or ferries. The diagrams are color coded lines to indicate each line, with named icons to indicate stations or stops. A transit map is usually found at the platforms, in printed timetables or in the transit vehicles themselves. Their main function is to help users to efficiently use the public transport system, including which stations to use as interchange between lines.

Travel map

See Touristic map and Route map.



Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) grid

Military grid system based on the transverse Mercator projection, applied to maps of the Earth’s surface extending from the Equator to 84 Degrees north and 80 degrees south latitudes.



Vector graphic

Custom maps are often drawn in vector graphics programs such as Adobe Illustrator or Inkscape. Vector graphics consist of circles, polygons, lines or curves in vector form, i.e. not containing pixels or rasters. Vector graphics have the advantage of loss-free scalability, independent of print resolution. Vector graphics can easily be converted to PDFs or bitmap / pixel graphics.

Vector map

Vector maps are maps consisting of vector graphics, in contrast to raster maps.



Wall map

Wall maps are large scale maps to be hung on or painted onto walls.

WGS 84

The World Geodetic System 1984 (WGS 84) is a geodetic reference system. It is being used as a standardized base for relaying position information on the globe and in near-earth space.




Xerography is the most-used technique to photocopy paper or other thin material. It is the most important use of electrostatics. It was invented byChester F. Carlson in 1937 and has its name from the greek word ‘ξερός’ (dry) and basically meands “dry writing”.



Y coordinate

The Y coordinate is part of a cartesic, orthogonal coordinate system and refers to the vertical axis, also called axis of ordinates.


Zoom level

Digital cartography usually uses zoom levels, not scale as in print cartography. In zoom level 0 the whole planet fits within one “map tile”, in zoom level 1 this area is split into four tiles, in zoom level 2 into 16 tiles, and so on.


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