Big Picture Design
Lesson 1


Benefiting from layout experimentation and critique

In addition to planning hierarchies and balancing empty spaces, a good dose of experimentation often improves a map design. Novice designers tend to place the map elements in positions that seem obvious and workable. They may adjust these positions or change the sizes of elements slightly to improve the layout, but the initial arrangement of elements on the page is not questioned.

Before you start making small adjustments to improve a layout, push yourself to think of some arrangements that are radically different from the first one that you are assuming will work. Change the page orientation from portrait to landscape and see how elements fit together. Move elements from the top of the page to the bottom. Try pulling them into a more compact arrangement with overlapping elements. For example, overlay titles and text blocks on some conveniently open areas of the map. You may come back to the first layout in the end, but this experimentation is an important first step in map design.

The vegetation map seen in previous examples is shown in portrait (tall) and landscape (wide) orientations below. Both arrangements are well balanced and have a minimal difference in visual hierarchy.

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Example portrait layout of Congo vegetation map. [Click to enlarge]

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Example landscape layout of Congo vegetation map. [Click to enlarge]

Equally important as experimentation is asking other people to judge your draft layout for a map. When you ask a person to critique your work, your job is to be quiet and let them do what you asked. A critique is not an opportunity to explain and defend your decisions. You will adjust or discard many of their suggestions, but do that after you hear them out. During the critique, ask them to elaborate on the reasons behind their ideas and interpretations but do not spend time debating them.

A draft map usually has unfinished aspects, such as incomplete text, nonsense colors, and downright errors. The person doing the critique will always zero in on these details first. Acknowledge that the work is a draft and encourage them to look at the big picture, the overall layout. Help them get past the details. Details are easier to edit than understanding the larger scope of a project. The person you have pushed into a quick critique is not immersed in the design or map content as you are; do not despair if you cannot get them beyond details. Thank them for their sharp-eyed edit, then choose another person who is less distracted and perhaps able to engage the larger challenge of making sense of the page.

You should ask a few people for suggestions and balance their critiques. Pay attention to their reasoning and suggestions, but be aware that points of confusion can be improved by making changes different than the ones your critics suggest. For example, one critic may suggest that legend boxes be made larger so they are more visible and another may suggest spacing the boxes. You may decide that changing the position of the legend so the boxes are not as close to the colorful main map makes them more visible, addressing both concerns without making either change that was suggested.

A critique is raw material that pushes you to experiment and refine your decisions. It also keeps you honest—it prevents you from going forward with convoluted solutions that you have thought about too much.


Planning a layout


Balancing empty spaces
Refining a layout
Benefiting from layout experimentation and critique

Plan a layout


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