Adobe Illustrator & Photoshop tutorial: Design a vector map packed with creatures and landmarks

Use Photoshop and Illustrator to create a charming vector map that's stuffed with famous features and animals.


Jimmy Gleeson was commissioned by a homewares studio in Melbourne to illustrate a souvenir depiction of 'Australia'. Follow Jimmy has he creates a map from concepts and sketches through the finished piece in in Photoshop and Illustrator. The approaches he uses could be applied to any type of vector map from a theme park to a full country, like Jimmy has here.

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"Having had my head in an atlas before I could read, it's fair to say I've always had a slight addiction to maps, particularly those with a figurative aspect," says Jimmy. "For this project however, I wanted to elevate the idea of an Australian souvenir range away from your traditional daggy corked hats and boxing kangaroos. 

"I wanted the final map to act as a piece of communication that helps inform people on the diversity behind Australia, not just as eye candy. From mountains to cities, rainforest to deserts, the final design is hopefully something that inspires a visit to some of Australia's lesser known outback gems."

Step 1


I'll always remember my Grandma's tea towel collection containing a few 70s stylised maps of Australia. They were massive back then and drew on the colloquial humour that typified the Australian landscape.

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Having canvassed a few thrift stores as well as online, the best reference I could find was this printed serving plate (right). My goal was to create a crisper and more modern version that still paid respect to this initial piece's vibrancy.

Step 2


Due to the intense detail of encompassing an entire country on a page, simplicity was really the only approach. I've always been inspired by artists like Evan Hecox and Charlie Harper and find that stripping back forms can lead to the most beautiful approach. So with this in hand, I started first with the landmass of Australia itself.

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Naturally, the contours of Australia's coastline are jagged and irregular. I wanted to clean things up into more of an abstract collection of shapes that when clustered still depicted Australias iconic silhouette. This was the first foray into breaking down complex shapes into simplified forms.

To do this, I started by simply tracing a map of Australia.

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Step 3


From the traced map, I tried to keep the outline as simple as possible. All lines were straight with diagonals replacing areas of natural curves.

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Step 4


In order to keep things flat and graphic, I wanted to steer away from too much gradual colour. This was going to be quite difficult for depicting Australia's topography as the country contains so many climates. 

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To get the colour palette, I first referenced a climate map of Australia indicating the countries different eco zones.

Step 5


Using the Selective Colour panel, I changed each of the original climate colours to a palette that felt more natural and warm. This gave me approximately 12 colours in total.

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Step 6


In order to expand the number of colours in my palette, I blurred the map and in doing so created a set of tones in between colours.

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Step 7


As these colours were going to form the land base, I needed to ensure that as a background they wouldn't dominate the details that would sit overtop. This meant using the Levels panel to make the colours darker and then the Hue/Saturation panel to desaturate them.

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Step 8


With the blurry recoloured climate map now complete, I imported it into Illustrator and began using the Eyedropper tool to select individual colours.

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These were then added as a group to the Swatch panel along with blues, neutrals and browns.

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Step 9


Rather than use gradients, I wanted to break the map into a set of simplified shapes containing no more than four sides. This started to create a sort patchwork effect that would form the first layer of the map.

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Colours were assigned to a particular climate/region in order to communicate warmth (red/orange) or coolness (green/neutrals). Basic dot or line patterns were also added.

Step 10


The next layer contained the most obvious landmarks and major cities of Australia. All 8 capital cities were illustrated using a set of geometric shapes then placed in their corresponding locations. 

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Step 11


The same was done with the landmarks, ensuring they were always stripped down to their simplest geometric form without compromising their identity (such as Uluru – aka Ayres Rock).

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Step 12


The next pass of detail was added via secondary landmarks and attractions. Having overlaps of these helped add depth. It was important to group each object once completed so they could be scaled or placed easily afterwards.

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Step 13


Keeping in line with the illustration's use as an actual information piece, I never wanted to add details in areas that weren't true to that particular direction. When adding the flora, I developed a set of trees and shrubs that could be easily recoloured and placed in their appropriate areas.

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Palm trees signified the tropical north, low-lying shrubs were used in dryer areas whilst the Western parts of Australia had their own distinctive spiky tree known in Australia as grasstrees or sometimes 'blackboys' (though some consider that name offensive).

Step 14


To keep the map from looking like a set of individually placed objects, it was important to connect these and create dimension using rolling hills. Various gradient-filled semi-circles seemed to work better than the jagged triangles used for the steeper Alps.

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Having these curves broke the rigidity of the patchwork land base as well as offset the more geometric man-made landmarks.

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Step 15


Australia is most famous for its (alternately cute and terrifying) fauna. That meant this part was crucial to giving the final illustration the charm and personality it needed.

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Again, referencing real photos and then deconstructing them into basic geometric shapes was the way each animal was created. 

Step 16


Simplicity was the key for creating the fauna. For some reason, crocodiles are the hardest for this and birds are the easiest. I'm not sure why.

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Step 17


The remaining details were added to the maps surrounds, including clouds, waves, ocean names and textures. It seemed fitting to call the piece Discover Australia due to the 'Where's Wally?' level of detail and sense of discovering something new each time you looked at the work.

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Step 18


Once complete, I then created an assets package for the client containing all landmarks, flora and fauna as separate illustrations.

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Step 19


These are used singularly or to form patterns across a wide range of products like ceramic plates, jigsaw puzzles, books and luggage.

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