ArcGIS Online

Put your best thumbnail forward

First impressions are important—whether it’s during a job interview, a first meeting with a prospective client, or when you visit a company website. While you shouldn’t necessarily judge a book by its cover, we’re visually oriented and what we see affects our perception of not only what interests us, but also forms an impression of what’s beyond the visual. Which leads to the question: Why have thumbnails like these as the first impression of your map?

The above thumbnails are from publicly shared maps, and while the maps behind them might be finely crafted examples of online mapping excellence, the first impression sets the expectation otherwise.

In contrast, the thumbnails below show professionalism, and indicate that the maps they represent are authoritative, curated, and of high quality.

Going beyond a mediocre thumbnail

Many of the maps we create are on behalf of an organization, a business, a non-profit, an educational institution, or other kind of organization. Even if not representing an organization, the work you do represents yourself professionally, or reflects upon your GIS department, so first impressions matter. This is especially true for top-tier content that you want to share with other departments, a public audience, or with peer organizations. They will judge the book by the cover.

It’s easy to change your thumbnail and set an impression of quality rather than mediocrity.  In this example we’ve authored a map of places to go in San Diego. The default thumbnail is adequate, but since we want to share this map publicly we can do better.

First, create a better thumbnail. You can zoom and capture a part of the map, or can adopt one of the other design options to consider, discussed later. The thumbnail should be 600 x 400 px for best results, and must be a PNG, GIF, or JPEG. The thumbnail can be made with any screen capture or graphics program.

To change the thumbnail, open the item pages Overview tab and click Edit Thumbnail:

In Upload Thumbnail, you can drag and drop a new thumbnail or click Choose File to browse to its location.

Once chosen, you can adjust the zoom to fit and place the image in the frame. When finished, click OK to save your changes.

Here’s our saved item. We chose a photo with a marker symbol to create a thumbnail with more appeal, that represented “places to go.”

Style and design considerations

Of the two above—the original and the new thumbnail—which presents the better impression of the content behind it? Of course there are many different aesthetic and design considerations, and opportunities for creativity, so take a look at some of the ones already published and see which you find appealing – those are the examples you should emulate. Here are some interesting examples that provide a judge-the-book-by-the-cover approach to thumbnails.

Geographic context
Each of these thumbnails provides an obvious visual reference to the geographic context of the map, that helps the user anticipate what they will see. From left to right, the first is a map of Utah, the second covers world content, and the third is a map of Paris.

Content hints
Sometimes thumbnails provide a visual cue to the content source we find within them. Below is a map containing temporal data, a CSV file, and a KML (of mining data).

Apps, tools, and capabilities
The thumbnail might also provide an indication of the functionality or tools within an application. The first can be recognized as a Story Map Tour, the second an app that features charts, and the third an app that provides tools for deer management.

Photo or graphic cues
Photos or graphics can provide obvious clues to the content. From left to right: weather or hurricanes, fish habitat or fishing, and shorebirds.

Graphic hints
Thumbnails don’t have to be photo-realistic or include a map, artistic graphics can also deliver context. From left to right: a map about public art in Pasadena, a birding festival, and a concert event.

Organization branding
An interesting and useful thumbnail concept is branding, and is one that I highly recommend for top-tier authoritative content shared by an organization. Each map below employs a visual brand (the organization logo) which provides an indication of the authoritative source for the map.

On the left the thumbnail uses a standard logo from Iowa DOT, along with an indicator of the item type (a map) and a representation of the data in the map. The middle thumbnail clearly indicates the item is about ducks, while the latter is a nicely branded example from Kansas DOT. Do you prefer to see geographic context along with the thumbnail, or is a visual and logo sufficient?

Tips and Recommendations

When creating custom thumbnails, I recommend using a template created in Photoshop (or similar) containing your graphic elements. When you create a new thumbnail, you can toggle your graphic elements as desired, after capturing the background of the thumbnail.

PNG generally provides the best results. I create templates using the exact 4:3 ratio of 600 x 399 px, or use the largest size currently used in the ArcGIS online ecosystem which is 286 x 190 px—the standard size used in the Story Maps and Living Atlas galleries.


Each of these approaches provides some food for thought when it comes to adding custom thumbnails to your ArcGIS Online items. It’s a small, but yet important, detail that is often overlooked. It only takes a few minutes to come up with a thumbnail that trumps the default, and the reflection on you and your organization is likely worth the additional effort. So put your best thumbnail forward!

This post was originally published on April 15, 2011, and has been updated.

About the author

Tech evangelist and product strategist at Esri, focusing on ways to broaden access to geographic information and helping users succeed with the ArcGIS Platform. On a good day I'm making a map, on a great day I'm on one. Follow @bernszukalski or email


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