20 Things to Keep in Mind When Reading a Map

By: Ethan Small

Ethan Small

Research Intern

These tips have been inspired by and adapted from Mark Monmonier’s

How to Lie with Maps.

A glossary of terms follows at the end of the page.

1. Why Does this Map Exist?

Maps are made with a purpose in mind. Consider why the map you are looking at was made. Was your map made to convince you of something? To help you navigate? To decorate a presentation or space?

2. Maps Must Distort Reality

In order to be useful, a map must distort reality in some way, omitting some information to highlight the information which is most important. Maps are not objective representations of space, but reflect the biases and priorities of their creators.

3. People Trust Maps

Map users are often too trusting of maps, assuming they are made by unbiased, professional and skilled people with no interest in deceiving them. Maps are just as prone to accidental and intentional errors as books, speeches and other forms of communication.

4. Maps Are Projections

We live on a spherical planet with a curved surface. Because Earth’s surface is curved, it is difficult to represent on a 2D surface such as a map because distances will be stretched and shrunken. This is not a big problem when representing a smaller land area, such as a city, but it is a serious problem when trying to map large areas such as continents, or the entire Earth itself.

5. Maps Rely on Scale

Except in very rare cases, maps are usually much smaller than the things they represent. Thus, cartographers must scale down the spaces they depict. Check to see if the map you are looking at lists its scale, and consider whether it uses this scale consistently. Some digital maps allow you to zoom in and out, changing the scale.

6. Maps Use Symbols

Maps use symbols to represent certain features or to convey specific information. Codes and legends can help to explain these symbols. Symbols can be misleading. Symbols and mapping conventions vary by culture, a symbol might intuitively represent one thing in one culture, and a different thing in another.

7. Colour Can Be Misleading

Consider why and how the creator of your map uses colour. By using certain colours, cartographers can intentionally or accidentally send specific messages about what’s depicted on the map.

8. Colour-Coding Can Be Confusing

While colour can help make maps more clear and visually appealing, colour-coded mapping can also confuse those with colour blindness, and a poor use of colour can create maps which are visually unappealing or messy.

9. Editing for Clarity

Large scale maps must usually omit finer details in order to avoid overcrowding. Sometimes boundaries and territory shapes are edited, simplified, smoothed or blended together for the sake of simplicity and clarity.

10. Role of Advertisers

Advertisers are less interested in accuracy than they are in presenting their product well. Always be cautious when maps are trying to sell you something. A transportation company that operates a toll highway may push points together, remove some features or geographical realities or shrink or stretch the land in order to make their route look easier and more efficient than their competitors.

11. Role of Political Legitimacy

Maps hold political power. By putting a territory on a map with distinct borders and features, one can give a region, and any ruler it has, political legitimacy and a sense of importance. Governments, corporations and individuals can make their causes seem more legitimate merely by putting their desired information on an official-looking map. Political propagandists can use maps in many ways to push many ideologies.

12. Sizing Changes

Cartographers can use sizing to make territories look larger or smaller, to make them seem more relevant, more threatening, more powerful or vice versa. They may also alter a country’s borders to include disputed territory.

13. Dominant Culture

Cartographers can make one culture seem dominant over others by translating place names or using one culture’s preferred names for places while excluding the names used by other cultures.

14. Government Intervention

Governments may leak or circulate maps with false details to confuse enemies or outsiders, and may even provide these maps to their own public, positioning them as official and reliable. Government-made maps will often hide or exclude military bases, weapons-facilities, environmental hazards and other features which might appeal unappealing or politically inflammatory, even if the existence/location of the feature is common knowledge in a particular area. Government maps are not value-neutral, and contain ideology and political significance.

15. Mapping Standards

Cartographers are often part of committees or regulated by governments, and these groups set standards for map production. These standards are culturally specific, and shaped by the interests of the country, region, culture and institution producing them. In many places, economic and military interests are prioritized, so features that may be relevant to these areas are prioritized.

16. Presence of Errors

Misspelled words, streets which were planned but never created and incorrectly drawn boundaries are common map errors. Sometimes maps have errors on them because the cartographer cut corners or did not have the money or resources to do a good job. Other times, maps errors are made intentionally to mislead the reader.

17. Keeping Up to Date

Maps can be faulty simply because they are out of date, or were compiled from maps made at various points in time. Some maps, like weather maps, need to be updated daily. Derivative maps, maps created by using other maps, are more likely to contain errors than maps produced using other techniques, as not only are errors made in transferring information, but new maps will also contain any errors made in the originals used to compile new maps.

18. Areal Aggregation

The same data set can be used to produce many different maps, telling many different stories. Areal aggregation, how land is divided into distinct areas, can impact what trends are seen on a map, and can be used to manipulate data to show a specific trend. A cartographer may want to show a specific trend, and might pick and choose data to emphasize their point.

19. Digital Deceptions

As maps are increasingly easier to produce on the computer, and can now be used as part of multimedia presentations, complete with images, sound and time lapses, one must be ever skeptical, especially if the presenter is attempting to sell an ideology, project or item.

20. Some Maps Are Decorative

Maps are not always made and used simply to convey information, but also to decorate, impress or lend legitimacy to something. This is not always bad. Maps can be correct and useful and still serve this purpose. However, decorative maps may be made incorrectly, may be misleading or may sacrifice accuracy for flashiness.

Glossary of Terms

Areal aggregation: Decision making about how to separate territory into distinct zones. Based on how territory is divided, trends will appear differently, and cartographers must choose how to best divide land to display their information.

Cartographer: A person who creates maps.

Disputed territory: Land which is under contention. If multiple countries, provinces, governments, etc., lay claim to a piece of land, this land may be considered disputed territory.

Feature: Any symbol, label, place, or marker on a map.

Key: A table which explains the meanings of symbols, labels and colours used on a specific map.

Legitimacy: A sense of justification for the existence, promotion or celebration of something. For something to be considered legitimate, it must be broadly considered real and significant.

Projection: A transformation of 3D coordinates onto a 2D plane. Different projections can be made in 2D based on the same 3D area, and cartographers must choose how to best adapt a 3D space to suit the purpose of their map.

Propaganda: Information, especially media spread in order to influence or promote particular ideas, usually political ideologies. The term is usually associated with the spread of harmful, false, or only partially true information.

Scale: Describes the relationship between distance on a physical map and distance within the space represented by the map. Essentially, scale tells a reader how many times bigger (or in rare cases, smaller) a place is in comparison to its map. Many maps list their scale as either a ratio (1:1000) or a fraction (1/1000). In the case of map scale, these differences are merely stylistic.

Symbol: A simple image or mark used as a stand-in to indicate something more complex. Usually on maps, the symbols are intuitive, a cartoon bridge generally denotes the presence of a bridge. However, bear in mind, some symbols may hold different meanings in different cultures, and cartographers may use symbols that are not intuitive to the reader. When possible, look for a key to explain the symbols on a map.

Further Reading

On Projections:

Briney, Amanda. (13 Jan, 2014). “A Look at the Mercator Projection.” Retrieved from: (Sept, 2022)

Dempsey, Caitlin. (27 Dec, 2002). “What is a Map Projection?” Retrieved from: (Sept, 2022)

On Propaganda:

Cornell University – PJ Mode Collection of Persuasive Cartography. (Accessed Sept, 2022)

McGhee, Geoff. (22 Oct, 2015). “How to Make Maps and Influence People” Retrieved from (Accessed Sept, 2022)

Indigenous Place-Names and Mapping:

Government of Canada. (Modified 17 June, 2022). “Indigenous Place Names” Retrieved from (Accessed Sept, 2022)

Leonard, Kelsey. (Winter 2021). “Putting Indigenous Place-Names and Languages Back on Maps” Retrieved from: (Accessed Sept, 2022)