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Electronic Topographic Map Design Research

Electronic Topographic Map Design was a five-year research project led by Prof. Cynthia Brewer of Pennsylvania State University to develop new designs and symbology for U.S. Topo. Prof. Brewer developed content for both online devices and printed topographic maps, taking into consideration various display sizes and resolutions for a range of representative scales from 1:5,000 to 1:1,000,000. Prof. Brewer’s innovations in the use of feature selections according to map scale, color, symbolization, and generalization are now embedded into USGS standards for generating the nation’s  topographic maps.     

This research addressed problems with poor map readability across scale and resolution changes. Solutions included findings from generalization studies of multiscale representation enlarging selected features at particular scales; integrating color with shaded relief; strategically increasing or decreasing visual contrast; modifying label placement and size; and adjusting designs and data selection to fit the geographical characteristics in the map  area. Nine sites with different designs were evaluated in a usability test by professionals. The highest-ranked designs from those tests were compared to topographic maps from other countries around the world. Publications of the details of this project are available to view at:

Prof. Brewer received the Henry Gannett award in 2013 for her research based on this project. The Henry Gannett award recognizes achievements that have “enabled ground-breaking, sustained, and noteworthy contributions to the topographic mapping of the Nation, [and] to the science of geography and cartography.”

In addition to research, the funding for this project supported student education using resources from The National Map. It also supported the work of Penn State graduate students who advanced to professional careers in the cartography and GIS industry. Two students on the team, Andrew Stauffer and Elaine Guidero, work in the National Geospatial Technical Operations Center (NGTOC) of USGS, doing applied research, cartography, and geospatial data support.