Cartographic Fonts for Labeling Text on Maps in macOS

Selecting the right font family(s) for your next map can be a daunting task. We’ve scoured hundreds of font families to find the best Mac system fonts for cartography so you don’t have to.

Mapdiva’s 16 Best macOS Fonts for Cartography

You need to make a map. You understand the overall impression of a map often stems from its typographic design. Will it look classic? Modern? Light? Dark? So, which typefaces do you choose?

At Mapdiva, we live and breath cartography, including keeping an eye on what cartographer’s around the world say are their favorite typefaces and pairings. For example, over the years on the CartoTalk forum, dozens of cartographers have chimed in to share their favorite font families for maps. Unfortunately, the CartoTalk forum is retiring, but we’ve condensed what we’ve learned and added tips to help you create a map you’ll love.

So, how does a font family make our list? It must have these hallmarks:

  • It’s included with macOS, or available for download from Apple (there are many great cartographic fonts you can purchase, but our list only includes free macOS system fonts)
  • It’s readable at (very) small size
  • It has a slightly narrow habit and/or condensed variety, allowing more text to fit into small spaces
  • It has lots of variants (weights; widths; italic) that are clearly differentiated from each other
  • It has a variety of special characters and symbols
  • It pairs well with others

Why We Like Them

A typeface (also known as font family) is a group of fonts, designed to be used in combination and exhibiting similarities in design. Here’s why these typefaces are great for cartography.

SERIF

Serifs are semi-structural details on the ends of some of the strokes that make up letters and symbols (also known as Roman). In traditional cartography, serif fonts are more typically used for labeling natural features, like water bodies.

  • Baskerville – Classified as a transitional typeface, it is intended as a refinement of old-style typefaces of the period. It has a classic demeanor that doesn’t have the problem of x-height and slender strokes found with many Serif font faces.
  • Georgia – Has a large x-height for readability at small sizes. It also has old style figures for a classy touch. Cartographer Nick Springer says on CartoTalk, “Georgia is my favorite serif font for screen use” (Posted 06 November 2005).
  • Optima –  Notice that we list Optima as both Serif and Sans-serif? CartoTalk forum user, woneil, sums it up nicely, “For me, Hermann Zapf is the god of type designers and Optima is one of his finest creations. Technically it is a sans face, but his subtle letterforms actually give much of the effect of a serif face. Of course the subtleties of letterforms are lost in small sizes, but they remain beautiful and distinctive” (woneil, Posted 04 November 2005). Because of its Serif/Sans-serif flexibility, it can be a useful choice when your map will be placed among other text (such as in a book).
  • Papyrus – An unusual display face that does indeed seem to have something of an “Egyptian” feel. Specialized, but quite distinctive.
  • Palatino – A graceful old-style serif typeface designed by Hermann Zapf, in a calligraphic style mirroring the letters formed by a broad nib pen. Solid structure designed to be legible at small sizes, though producing a wider text block than some other popular choices, such as Times. On CartoTalk, cartographer Dennis McClendon states, “I consider Palatino to have the most beautiful italics, but the roman sets a bit wide for my taste” (Posted 04 November 2005).
  • Times – A dignified and classic serif typeface with a narrow habit, making it useful on complex maps where space is an issue. However, cartographer Hans van der Maarel observes on CartoTalk that it becomes difficult to distinguish individual glyphs at very small sizes (for example, 6pt) (Posted 29 January 2010).
  • Times New Roman – A serif typeface designed for legibility in body text. It adds a classic demeanor with a relatively condensed appearance, a good choice where spacing for labels may be tight.

SANS-SERIF

A typeface without serifs is called sans-serif, from the French sans, meaning “without” (also known as Gothic). In traditional cartography, sans-serif fonts are more typically used for labeling man-made and cultural features, like roads and cities.

  • Arial Unicode MS – Benefits from a wide variety of special characters and symbols, which makes it possible to print place names from almost any language.
  • Avenir – A geometric sans-serif typeface designed by Adrian Frutiger, self-described it as his finest work. On CartoTalk, Daniel Huffman says, “I find it pretty approachable… it’s sort of like a man in a nice suit who introduces himself charmingly, then gets out of the way” (Posted 30 November 2016). Apple uses Avenir for its Maps app.
  • Futura – A geometric sans-serif typeface designed by Paul Renner. It’s based on geometric shapes, especially the circle, similar in spirit to the Bauhaus design style of the period.
  • Gill Sans – A typeface with a small x-height yet is still quite readable at tiny sizes. Less mechanical-looking than the Helvetica series. Found in multi weights and widths.
  • Helvetica – This widely used sans-serif typeface is one of the most popular in the world. And for good reason. It has a comfortable technical feel and contains a range of usable variants beneficial in cartography.
  • Helvetica Neue – A reworking of Helvetica with a more structurally unified set of heights and widths. Provides predictable results in legibility, heavier punctuation marks, and increased spacing in the numbers.
  • Lucida Grande – A humanist sans-serif typeface. Includes many accented characters. Designed primarily as a screen font making it a good choice for digital maps, it also appears frequently in print.
  • Optima –  Notice that we list Optima as both Serif and Sans-serif? CartoTalk forum user, woneil, sums it up nicely, “For me, Hermann Zapf is the god of type designers and Optima is one of his finest creations. Technically it is a sans face, but his subtle letterforms actually give much of the effect of a serif face. Of course the subtleties of letterforms are lost in small sizes, but they remain beautiful and distinctive” (woneil, Posted 04 November 2005). Because of its Serif/Sans-serif flexibility, it can be a useful choice when your map will be placed among other text (such as in a book).
  • Tahoma –  A humanist sans-serif typeface great for digital maps and screen display. Tahoma is often compared with Frutiger, another humanist sans-serif typeface beloved by cartographers (but not available as a Mac system font).
  • Verdana – Another humanist sans-serif typeface. Bears similarities to Frutiger, but was designed to be readable at small sizes on the low-resolution computer screens. Verdana has a large x-height (tall lower-case characters), with wider proportions and loose letter spacing. Map labels will be wider with Verdana than, for example, Tahoma.

Pairing Serif and Sans Serif

Like fine wine and cheese, cartographic fonts benefit from a good pairing. Convention says to pair a Serif type family and a Sans-serif type family on your map. While there are no hard-and-fast rules, most cartographers use a Serif for natural features, such as rivers and mountains, and Sans-serif for man-made and cultural features, such as cities and road names. Within each family, different variants, sizes, and colors are applied to distinguish between types of features.

Most professional cartographers have their favorite pairings where glyph spacing, x-heights, and overall word-form work well together. For example, here are some preferred pairings of macOS system fonts:

  • Gill Sans with Times New Roman
  • Helvetica Neue with Times Regular
  • Optima with Baskerville

Font Schema Used in Ortelius Map Templates

Maps are multi-layered, complex compositions. As is good practice, Mapdiva has defined a hierarchy in our labeling scheme. We use different weights, colors, CAPS, and spacing. Ortelius 2 map templates pair Optima (San Serif) for man-made and cultural features with Baskerville (Serif) for natural features.

Tips for Color, Variants, and Size

Generally, we recommend using no more than two font families in a single map. Within each family, different variants, sizes, and colors are applied for different features to establish a labeling schema for features on your map.

  • Size – Even for the same types of features, font size can establish a visual hierarchy to differentiate features, such as large cities (bigger text) and small cities (smaller text). You can also differentiate among features with your labeling using italic and bold weights. For example, you might want points of interest in a bold face while parks are italic.
  • Color – Color can help differentiate different features, such as blue for river labels and brown for contours.
  • Saturation – Color saturation can also establish a visual hierarchy to represent more important and lesser important features. For example, black will stand out the most especially when using a bold font weight. Whereas grey works well for features you’d like to keep in the background, such as roads (clhenrick, CartoTalk 01 January 2014).
  • Background – Keep in mind your text labels may be displayed on top of a background color. Experiment to see if your labels, with your choice of font and colors, maintain their readability when placed over complex backgrounds. White can be a great color choice for labels when used over darker backgrounds. When used subtly, text masks (halos) around your labels can also help. Masks are also used when a label must cross over patterned fills or features, such as dark lines.
  • Text On Path – The eye reads text on a map letter-by-letter. Labels that follow natural curves, such as that of a mountain range, act as a symbol for linear features. Text that follows curves can visually hold together a label with broadly spaced glyphs, such as a country name, even when interspersed with smaller labels and symbols.
  • Kerning – Take advantage of kerning to spread lettering out when labeling a large area, such as a mountain range or a country.

Our choice of macOS sytem fonts have great legibility at small sizes on maps. Keep in mind labels can be harder to read as they get smaller. Depending on the font and your layout, try not to use sizes less than 7pt, though occasionally smaller may be necessary to fit in all necessary labels.

Complete List of macOS System Fonts

Click this link to see all the fonts by included with macOS High Sierra. Additional fonts are available for download or as needed by your document or app.

Should you want to install new fonts, you can use Font Book to install and preview fontsvalidate and resolve duplicate fonts, and restore the standard fonts that came with High Sierra. For more information about Font Book, choose Font Book Help from the Help menu in Font Book.

High Sierra installs fonts in these folders on your Mac:

  • The Library folder in your System folder: /System/Library/Fonts (these fonts are required by your Mac and can’t be disabled in Font Book)
  • The Library folder at the top level of your hard drive: /Library/Fonts
  • macOS High Sierra comes with many built-in or downloadable typefaces

What Do You Use?

Do you have you own personal favorite typefaces and parings? Honorable mentions that are (or maybe aren’t) macOS system fonts? We’d love to hear about it!