A focus on visualizations: Map charts


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Imagine you’re going on a road trip, you probably wouldn’t drive across country without a map, (or at least an app) to tell you the direction and distance to your desired location. Maps are powerful in the sense that they not only show us where we are going, but they tell us what we can expect to find along the way.

Maps, however, are not used just to show travelers routes, or occasionally to save you when you’re lost, but also to visualize data in a comprehensive and unique way. Say you would like to see exactly where in the world your websites visits are coming from, sure you can use a bar chart to see how locations compare side by side, but wouldn’t it be easier, more interactive and more compelling to have it all laid out all in one place?

world map chart

By using maps, like the one above, you can show your stakeholders in a simple and clear way exactly where your indicators are important, and how they are performing. Maps have the ability to bring your data to life by allowing readers to visually associate indicator performance to location.

You may have recently noticed that maps are popping up online almost as often as a infographics. Why? The answer is simple: maps tell stories. People understand stories, and can relate better to them, allowing the data to make a powerful impression on the reader.

Some of the most entertaining map charts include data such as crime rates, obesity by postal code, and my personal favorite: McDonald’s geographic presence across the world. Did you know that in the USA you are never more the 107 miles from a McDonalds? Wow!

Mcdonald´s restaurant locations map chart

 Map by EU Management

While these maps are all in good fun, keep in mind, it’s probably not wise to show your stakeholders a silly chart about the most common surname, or political association by city (save those for your twitter feed), but you can still use map charts to represent how your indicators are performing as an easily understood story.

What to consider when designing a map chart:

map chart Spain
Area: The first thing you should consider is the area you plan to represent in your map. If your data is only relevant to Europe, you wouldn’t show a full world map. So decide which map, or area, best allows the user to easily view all of your metrics. Your choices may include area by country, continent, city, or even a full global view.

world map chartUS map chart

Scale: whilst deciding on the area, the scale of your map will also affect the clarity. For example, if you are to show a map of the world, it may be difficult to interpret some of the smaller countries such as in eastern Europe. In the graph below you can see just a small speck of green there.

World map chart

It may be easier to scale the map to allow the reader to see a zoomed in view of the locations that are harder to differentiate. Due to the fact that interpreting an entire map of the world in one view may be a challenging task, great dashboard-designed maps should include the option to zoom-in so that the reader can see all locations and their values clearly.

Europe Map

Color scale:

It may seem like a no-brainer, but you would be surprised. When you establish your color scale, make sure your range is covered by more than one color or shade. If not, your graph may fail to meet the aim of using it in the first place.

bad example of a map chart color scale

Although the values of each individual state vary, the color scale is set inappropriately and needs to be readjusted to allow the reader to see distinctions. Otherwise all possible insights will just be blanketed by one dull and uniform color.

Make sure that your lines are defined as well, so that the reader can distinguish between locations easily. A map without lines or unclear lines, only serves the purpose of causing confusion. Your map should allow your reader to find the insights without a hitch!

Also keep in mind, if you’re going to print out your map, don’t forget to print in color, or at least set your colors to a gray scale. Otherwise, you may deliver an unreadable report to your stakeholders. Or one day you may even find your map chart in a post like The 27 Worst Charts of All Time. That’s embarrassing!


map chart scaleYou don’t have to be a geography wiz to understand a map. Even if you can’t name all fifty states, or label every country’s capital, it is still possible to get a general idea of a map. However, designers need to recognize when it is vital to label a map.

It may not be the physical location that you want to label, but more than likely the variable you are measuring. Unless you are breaking your map down into tiny cities, focus on the variable measured, and let the map speak for itself. Be sure to use a well defined legend to allow for easy interpretation.

At Sweetspot we use interactive color maps to allow the dashboard viewer to play around with the visualization, by placing the cursor over a location, the viewer is able to see the exact data for that particular spot. Check out the example below:

world map chart 
Multiple Indicators:
It is possible to show multiple indicators in a map. For example the map below shows both the overall percentage of visits, as well as the total number of visits.


map chart labels

Don’t over-do-it! This is a basic rule for all data visualizations. But, with maps it’s easy to get carried away, with so much space you can represent a ton of things and the opportunities are endless. But, stop before you get ahead of yourself.

So how far is too far? Just take a look at the chart below:

map chart overlay

The only thing harder than successfully interpreting one pie chart, is interpreting fifty at the same time. This chart, possibly with a dedicated reader, an ample amount of spare time, and a good magnifying glass, could possibly be interpreted. But don’t expect the reader to extract too much information from a map like this. The overlaid pie charts add an unnecessary amount of complexity and confusion.

Overlaying bar charts has the same effect, and leaves the reader dumbfounded. Looking at the chart below, it’s hard to distinguish what area the bar charts are even covering, some of them even cover multiple countries.

bar chart overlay

One alternative, if you must insist on using an overlay, is to use bubbles to add a third variable to your map chart, which will allow you to visually highlight your indicators. The bubble is a relatively simple visualization that if used correctly, will not overpower your map.

bubble chart overlayIn conclusion:

You don’t have to load up the car, and drive across country just to use a map. Maps charts can be used anytime to take your stakeholders to a new level of data reporting,  by allowing you to transmit a clear story. Just be sure to keep it simple, clean, and easy to read, as to allow your data-crunchers to get the most powerful message from your metrics!

How do you use map charts to create stories for your reporting needs?

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Holly McKendry

Sweetspot Marketing Director. Wakeboarder & travel enthusiast. Communication Studies graduate of Texas State University, San Marcos.

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