Map Colors: Exploring Common Map Design Patterns

Colors on maps are used in common ways, whether that is to show elevation or political alignment.

February 8, 2023

Why Do Maps Use Colors?

Maps with lines and colors have always been a tool to help us navigate and understand the world around us. And these colors are not just a pretty addition; they are an essential part of the map's language, speaking volumes about the terrain, the landmarks, and the data they represent.

Think of colors as the brushes used to paint the story of the world. Green is the color of life, a lush landscape of verdant forests and parks. Blue is the hue of fluidity, marking the rolling waves of the oceans, seas, and flowing rivers. Brown is the tone of strength, the mountains rising from the earth. The map begins to come alive with these colors, revealing the world's natural beauty.

But colors on maps do more than paint the landscape. They categorize and organize information, creating visual hierarchies that allow us to identify and understand the data being presented quickly. You can distinguish streets, public transportation, and points of interest with different colors. And with the use of color gradients, maps can present data in a way that is easy to comprehend, showing us the highs and lows of population density or temperature.

The use of colors in maps not only makes them more visually appealing but also more functional. They allow us to see patterns and relationships that would be difficult to discern with just lines and shapes. They also make it easier to quickly scan and comprehend the information presented, giving us the confidence to explore and discover new places. 

So, the next time you unfold a map or see an interactive map for the first time, take a moment to appreciate the colors. They are not just an aesthetic choice but a powerful tool in the mapmaker's arsenal, allowing them to craft a story of the world that is both beautiful and functional.

6 Basic Colors On The Average Map

Whether you're a seasoned explorer or simply a lover of maps, the colors on a map bring the world to life, making it easier to understand, navigate, and appreciate. Six colors, in particular, stand out on a standard map, each serving a distinct purpose and conveying a unique message. 


Imagine yourself in a land of chocolatey-brown terrain dotted with lush green forests, rolling blue rivers, and sparkling blue oceans. Brown, often referred to as the "terrain" color, represents land masses, such as forests, deserts, and mountains. The brown color symbolizes stability, strength, and grounding, representing the solid and unchanging parts of the earth.


Green is used to represent vegetation, such as forests, parks, and gardens. This color symbolizes growth, life, and new beginnings, showcasing the beauty and abundance of nature.


Blue, a color as vast and deep as the oceans it represents, adds a touch of tranquility to the map, reminding us of the serene beauty of our planet's water bodies. Blue represents water bodies, such as oceans, lakes, and rivers. The blue color symbolizes calmness, peace, and serenity, showcasing the vast and mesmerizing bodies of water on our planet.


Black, bold and striking, symbolizes the power and sophistication of modern civilization, showcasing the sprawling cities and roads that connect us. Black is used to representing cities, roads, and boundaries. The black color symbolizes power, sophistication, and elegance, showcasing the busy and thriving cities of the world.


Red is like a beacon of energy, guiding us to important locations and tourist destinations that buzz with energy and passion and fuel our sense of adventure and excitement. Red represents essential locations, such as capital cities and tourist destinations. The red color symbolizes passion, energy, and excitement, showcasing the bustling and vibrant places to visit.


Yellow represents the vast and diverse topographical features of our planet, from deserts to plateaus, reminding us of the beauty and optimism of the world.

Common Map Designs That Use Colors

Map design using color plays a crucial role in conveying information and allowing users to understand complex data quickly. The use of color can enhance the functionality and legibility of maps, making it easier for users to understand and interpret the information presented. The colors chosen for maps are a vital aspect of the design. Each color has a purpose: blend into the background, highlight elevations, define borders, or bring data to life. Let's dive into some of the most common map designs that use colors. 

Military Maps

Military maps use muted earth tones to create a sense of camouflage; the colors are carefully selected to blend in with the terrain, allowing soldiers to study their surroundings without giving away their position. The maps are usually designed with shades of greens and browns to represent different land features such as forests, deserts, and mountains. Various symbols indicate enemy positions, friendly forces, and supply lines. These maps are designed to be functional, making the colors selected more about functionality and legibility rather than aesthetics.

Topographic Maps

Topographic maps use a range of colors to highlight different elevations. For example, darker shades are used to represent lower elevations, while lighter shades are used to represent higher elevations. The maps are used by hikers, outdoor enthusiasts, and geologists to study the topography of a region. The use of color allows the user to quickly identify mountain ranges, valleys, and rivers, helping them to plan their routes and understand the lay of the land.

Political Maps

Political maps are designed to represent the geopolitical boundaries of a region, highlighting the different countries and their borders. Bright and contrasting colors define the boundaries between nations, making it easy for students, travelers, and anyone interested in geography and politics to understand the geopolitical landscape. 

Choropleth Maps

Choropleth maps are designed to represent data using a range of colors to highlight different values. Different values are highlighted using a range of colors. For example, green might represent low values, while red might represent high values. These maps are used in various fields, including economics, epidemiology, and environmental science, and are a powerful tool for analyzing and visualizing data. 

Map Color Schemes

Map color schemes are a crucial aspect of visualizing data. They play a pivotal role in communicating complex information to their audience, and the way data is represented through color can make or break the map's effectiveness. There are three primary map color schemes: nominal, sequential, and diverging.

Nominal Color Scheme

The nominal scheme uses a rainbow of colors to categorize data, perfect for showcasing regions or land use. This scheme highlights patterns and differences, making it an easy-to-understand tool for your audience. 

Sequential Color Scheme

The sequential color scheme uses a gradient of colors to represent a range of values. It helps show data logically, such as population density or elevation. The gradual progression of colors helps to visualize the change in data values, making it easier to understand trends and patterns.

Diverging Color scheme

The diverging color scheme uses two contrasting colors to represent values above and below a central value, such as the average temperature. This color scheme helps show the difference between positive and negative values, making it easier to understand data with positive and negative values.

Each of these map color schemes has its strengths and limitations. Choosing the right color scheme is crucial in ensuring that the map effectively communicates the presented information. Understanding the differences between nominal, sequential, and diverging color schemes can help to choose the best color scheme for any given map.

A suitable color scheme can make all the difference in effectively communicating information through a map. The nominal, sequential, and diverging schemes each have their own unique strengths and limitations, making it crucial to choose wisely and understand their differences. A well-crafted color scheme can elevate a map to become a visual feast for the eyes and a valuable tool for understanding data.

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