Map-making, step by step

Update 5/27/2020: This blog post will provide you with an overview of the common steps needed to complete a map in ArcGIS Pro. If you want to try this process with a hands-on example, I recommend this tutorial: Make a River Map.

Recently I made a map of my favorite park: the Mojave National Preserve, a huge desert park in California. It’s a fantastic place that you should all visit.
Photo of cinder cones
It struck me that every time I make a map, I make the same time-consuming mistakes. These generally have to do with not preparing the project properly before I begin, resulting in messy duplicate geodatabases everywhere, annotation that was created at different scales and a general indecision about where the edge of the map should be. I thought it might be nice to have a suggested order of operations to prevent future pitfalls. And then I thought it would be nice to share it with all of you.

This tutorial uses the example of my map of the Mojave to outline a process for making one of your own, from data hunting all the way down to printing. It uses ArcGIS Pro, and does not go into detail about how to accomplish every single step, but instead gives an overview of the steps you might take. The screenshots provide hints, but ArcGIS Pro Help provides true help.

Do not neglect this step. Trust me. Making decisions up front about scale and extent will make the rest of your map-making so much easier.

picture of the Catalog pane

picture of the coordinate system picker dialog

picture of the map frame controls

picture of the insert tab of the ribbon

map with map frame rectangle

Now that you’ve got all the pieces in place, you are ready to actually make a map.

picture of the merge process

picture of tracing feature from the USA Topo Maps basemap

setting a definition query

symbolizing the map

Good labels make a good map.

label properties

convert to annotation on the ribbon

editing annotation

annotation masks

It’s time to make a layout.

keymap of california

adding layout elements to a map


You may think your map is finished, but a good proofreading will probably prove you wrong.

Finished map of the Mojave National Preserve

About the author

Heather is a cartographer and artist. She creates resources for the tutorial gallery.


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