Tactile Atlas of Switzerland

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Why We Love It

The Tactile Atlas of Switzerland gives people with visual impairment access to quality cartography. We love this approach to understanding geography. The tactile maps are made to be touched rather than seen. Raised symbols provide tangible differentiation for each feature. The atlas shares the sense of place in a new way for those unable to read traditional maps. Its methodology paves the way for the development of more tactile maps that represent other areas and various themes around the globe.

Why It Works

The usual rules do not apply when you want your map to be readable by fingertips rather than eyes. Symbols must be bigger and spaced wider than dictated by traditional map standards. Cartographically, it’s not advisable to portray data at a scale larger than it was captured to avoid implying more precision than is accurate. In the case of the Tactile Atlas, that is exactly what was done to ensure an adequately thin distribution of features. Too many features too close together, or with too much complexity, would be difficult to discern by touch.

Important Steps

Determine which layers to include together on each map type, and choose how to symbolize them. Choose large monochromatic symbols that can be distinguished by touch.

Generalize the data if necessary, to reduce complexity in line work, and ensure enough white space between discrete features.

Label features sparingly with large labels in Braille. Develop a glossary of abbreviations if necessary, by adding an attribute field of abbreviations and generating a report.

Divide the maps into a cohesive map series atlas.

Print the hardcopy atlas pages with a special printer and special paper. The paper swells when the ink reacts with heat in the printer to produce raised tactile features and labels.


Data & Software

“Swiss Map Vector 500” is the Swiss national 1:500,000 scale map in vector format provided free by the Federal Office of Topography, swisstopo. For this project, we used data of the railway network, hydrology, mountains, administrative boundaries, and settlement information.

Software included ArcGIS Desktop (ArcGIS Pro and ArcMap).


Data layers were extracted from the database, and further generalized if necessary. A field was added in the attribute table to contain abbreviations for labeling.


Getting the maps right took many iterations after evaluations by visually impaired map readers. Refinements included improvements to the abbreviation dictionary when two letters were not sufficient to distinguish place names from one another. Numbers were appended to the abbreviations in this case. The project, with review and refinement, took approximately seven days to complete.

Limit Labels


Limit labels and reduce those that are shown to simple two-letter abbreviations to allow Braille text to be shown no smaller than 21-point size. Create an abbreviation glossary as a companion.

Point Symbols


Use large, distinctly shaped point symbols.

Space Symbol Details


Space symbol details, such as railway hatches, far enough apart to be easily discernible by touch.

More Information

Map Author

Anna Vetter

Anna Vetter

@Carto_Anna | LinkedIn

As a cartographer at Esri Switzerland, I love to design compelling maps and visualizations and to work on exceptional projects such as the tactile maps.

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