Charting a Course

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Why We Love It

Nautical charts like this one embody a remarkably refined, restrained, and efficient design. They communicate large amounts of information quickly and with a very high degree of accuracy. In fact, charts like this are legal documents bound to the strictest standards. When we think about the complex business of moving people and cargo around the world, we realize that “getting it wrong” has serious consequences. We love how this chart gets it right by literally making the invisible visible.

Why It Works

Unlike road maps, nautical charts do not always show a predetermined path. Rather, it’s up to the navigator to plot or correct a course using data within the chart including navigational aids and soundings. Because of tides, a chart must be able to show places that change from one hour to the next. And charts must constantly be updated as channels silt up and depths change. This chart works because it allows vessels to safely navigate its waters—a testament to utility and refined design.

Important Steps

Labeling is important to all maps but of paramount importance here. Employ a consistent visual hierarchy and follow best practices for label size and placement.

The subdued color scheme is appropriate for a map that is designed to have additional information overlain on top.

There is little room for one-off creativity here, rather the author understands the importance of standardized nautical chart symbols that work across many languages.

Disclaimers abound in this map and for good reason: The world is dynamic. Data is imperfect and almost always out-of-date. Note the depth readings are tied to specific dates.

Although nautical charts aren’t about the land, it is still important to select key visual landmarks and features that are adjacent to the shore.



The source data used to create the chart comes from an Electronic Navigational Chart (ENC). An ENC is used on the bridge of a ship in a display similar to the navigation system in a car.


This chart was created using the Chart Automation Tool, a python script tool that strings together several geoprocessing tools to automate chart finishing processes.


These charts are produced by teams of people who collect, clean, analyze, and plot the many layers of information. One single plan sheet takes approximately five days to prepare.

Negative Space


Use the negative space of the land as a natural place for titles, supporting information, and meta-data.



Since much of the linework is black, line styles place a critical role in distinguishing types of features (dots, dashes, and solids).

Strong Color


Strong color is used sparingly, and only to call attention to the most significant navigational features.

Map Author

NOAA Office of Coast Survey

NOAA Office of Coast Survey


Coast Survey creates the nation's nautical charts for U.S. coastal waters, the Great Lakes, and territorial waters.

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