30 brilliant tips for creating Illustrated maps

Whether you’re drawing map illustrations by hand or designing them with vectors, there are tips here for you from leading illustrators

Tip 1


When choosing colours for an illustrated map, I like to begin with the colour of a monument or a symbol of the town. For my San Francisco map, the first colour that I picked was the Golden Gate Bridge red. Then I build my colour palette around it.

Benoit Cesari (FR)

Tip 2

For the composition of your map, try playing with the geography of the city. It’s not a big deal if things are not exactly at the right places. Drawing some monuments or places bigger than they actually are or with a different shape than they have can add more character to your design.

Benoit Cesari (FR)


Tip 3

Clarity is essential for a map to transmit information be understood perfectly. The harmony of the graphic elements is very important, so try to stick to a limited colour palette (with colours that contrast well) and two typefaces at the most.

Romualdo Faura (SP)

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Tip 4

When I design a map, the first thing I do is analyse the information that I have to include and the most important points on the map. Then I look for maps (usually on Google) that can be used as a template to start drawing.

I work with layers and use the Pen tool to draw outlines of maps, using a real map as a guide. I work with right and 45° angles, then add elements to the map – houses, trees, etc – and finally start with colour.

Romualdo Faura (SP)


Tip 5

If you have repeated objects such as trees and houses on your map, creating your own illustrated set of symbols to streamline the process of work can save a lot of time.

Romualdo Faura (SP)


Tip 6

Don’t get too hung up on everything being in exactly the right geographical position. I’m often given a list of landmarks that the client wants me to illustrate on my maps, but usually they are spread out irregularly and look awkward as a composition when plotted on a map. Moving things around a little, and also playing with scale, gives you that bit of flexibility to make sure your composition doesn’t suffer.

Owen Gatley (UK)

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Tip 7

I rarely need to be geographically accurate so I can get away with accentuating certain features or exaggerating areas of interest. I find it's easiest to start by choosing a colour scheme that best suits the area being depicted.

Livi Gosling (UK)


Tip 8

[When starting a map], I head to Pinterest to look up landmarks and popular food & drink hot spots. I then loosely draw my map outlines or roads in ink.

Livi Gosling (UK)


Tip 9

While the background of my map is drying I begin to ink up my chosen landmarks and icons. This part takes up the largest amount of time - it's important to make the buildings look accurate enough to be recognisable but not so detailed that I'm drawing them for hours and hours.

Livi Gosling (UK)

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Tip 10

I then scan all of my ink drawings into photoshop and compose the image on there. I tend to colour my work digitally now and I'm trying to simplify my colour schemes.

Livi Gosling (UK)


Tip 11

I find composition the most challenging aspect of designing a map. You're often caught between the realistic layout of the city and the dimensions of the layout in the brief. This is where artistic license becomes pretty handy.

I've drawn some very warped locations recently. It's also tricky when you have five or six icons that need to fit into a particular geographical area of the map. But if you do your research and roughly sketch out the locations beforehand you'll muddle through. 

Livi Gosling (UK)


Tip 12

Try and portray the overall 'feel' of the place you're illustrating. If your brief only lists buildings then throw in some local delicacies, wildlife and foliage. It can only add to the aesthetic. 

Livi Gosling (UK)

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Tip 13

The key in making a well-designed illustrated map is to create a visual balance & maintain readability. This may be a challenge when aiming for geographical accuracy. You'll likely run into spacing issues, having to fit too much or too little in one area. You may run into sizing issues as well, in which larger elements on the map dwarf the smaller points of interest. These issues make it a difficult to maintain balance & readability, so it is important to first understand the client's needs and how much you can distort reality.

Michael Mullan (US)


Tip 14

To begin, I do a lot of research. I find all of the travel hot spots, landmarks, and words associated with the area. Next, I find a current map of the area and use that as a guideline when laying out my words & elements. From here, I use my digital mock-up as a guideline to begin sketching.

During the sketch phase, I work out any design issues. I make sure there is an even flow of elements and that nothing appears disproportionate or illegible. Once the sketch is set, I pick my palette and begin the finished illustration. It's important to make sure all of the colours are used evenly. I usually use no more than 5 colours.

Michael Mullan (US)


Tip 15

Throughout the process, step back often and view it from farther away. A strong map design will be readable & seamless from afar. No one color or design element should distract or pull the eye (unless it's specifically meant to).

Michael Mullan (US)

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Tip 16

Feature the typography: words are a big trend right now and are a fun way to be expressive. Simplify the icons and use a maximum of two colours per icon.

The map will be way too busy if you try to incorporate too much colour into each piece.

Michael Mullan (US)


Tip 17

More is more. Some empty space is okay, but for a map with visual impact, try to fill the space with lots of dynamic shapes and letter forms. Break the map into sections and work piece by piece.

Aim for balance and readability in the smaller sections and that will carry over the piece as a whole.

Michael Mullan (US)

Image: Michael’s sketch for his map of Vermont


Tip 18

In an illustrated map you have the geographic structure (streets, borders, lakes, rivers), the typographic elements (texts, numbers, labels) and the illustrations (or icons). All must work together as a cohesive whole.

The illustrated elements can look more or less like icons – but keep them simple, otherwise the map will get confusing.

Nik Neves (Porto Alegre - RS)

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Tip 19

I working with Marina C on many map projects. Here’s how we work. First she creates the geographic structure, then we discuss the palette of colours and research pics and references, so I can illustrate the icons and do the typography.

Eventually I do a sketch of the whole map, so I can work out where the illustrations should be placed more precisely.

Nik Neves (Porto Alegre - RS)


Tip 20

When working in a commissioned map, it’s best if you have a good brief of what to highlight. Although you mostly need to fit the map’s layout to how it exists in the real world, this can be complicated sometimes. That’s when distortion is a big help to the illustrator.

Nik Neves (Porto Alegre - RS)

Image: A sketch for Nik’s illustrated map of the German town, Bad Salzuflen


Tip 21

The map is an illustration, with many layers of information between the graphic elements. Play with a map as in a drawing, but have in mind that you need to work in stages. But in the end don’t forget put them all together.

Nik Neves (Porto Alegre - RS)

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Tip 22

Firstly I spend time to figure out which rivers, lakes, famous boulevards or streets run through the area of the map I'm going to be focusing on. I find that this makes the map feel more iconic. In this case, I'm using the Paris map I illustrated as an example - as most of us know the Seine is very iconic to Paris, so I made sure I included that in there. The Seine River also helps out in breaking up my space and figuring out my composition. 

Clients usually ask me to include specific locations, but they leave it up to me to fill out the rest of the empty areas with locations or icons I want to include. This makes the experience of creating a map fun for me and in the process I learn a lot of new things about a city I've never travelled to. For Paris, I wanted to illustrate some of the places I've visited during my travels there.

Josie Portillo (US)


Tip 23

The background was created using gouache swatches scanned into my computer. The combined effect of Photo shop, gouache paints and archival inks is great. For coloring - I've never been one to use color palettes so I just go with what I believe looks right and makes the overall image look cohesive. This makes the process fun.

Josie Portillo (US)


Tip 24

I drew all of the buildings and icons by hand using a fine point micron pen before I scanned them in and placed them according to their geographical location.

Josie Portillo (US)

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Tip 25

I love to include hand written titles for points of interest. 

Josie Portillo (US)


Tip 26

With your map’s layout, you can be flexible with the placement of elements and shape of the land to make it a better fit. Points of interest should still be positioned approximately in relation to each other, but you can play with the scale to place more emphasis on certain elements and make the map more dynamic. Don’t restrict yourself too much to being exact and accurate.

Daniel Gray (AU)


Tip 27

When colouring your linework, a handy tip is to lock the transparent pixels on your isolated line work layers. This means that any colour you apply will only affect the black pixels and not any transparent pixels.

Daniel Gray (AU)

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Tip 28

I also use the Gradient Map function in Photoshop to colour entire layers of line work to a single colour.

Daniel Gray (AU)


Tip 29

I also use the Gradient Map function in Photoshop to colour entire layers of line work to a single colour.

Daniel Gray (AU)


Tip 30

If you’re working to a deadline, time is an important factor. Drawing a map can take longer than you think due to getting this balance of elements right - give yourself plenty of time for planning and once your rough is approved, also allow time for editing and colouring as you will usually colour each element individually. Deadline permitting, I try to give myself at least a whole day for this stage.

Daniel Gray (AU)

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