Maps Matter! Don’t Overlook This Crucial Event Design Element

New Orleans Book Festival map by Tight Ship Design

“Not all who wander are lost.”

— Someone too proud to ask for directions

Event professionals: raise your hand if you’ve used a Google Maps screenshot for navigating your event. It’s okay to admit it , and we won’t judge, but we know you’ve tried. So have we, and we know it doesn’t end well.

We know you know your mission: guaranteeing every last attendee a smooth experience, from the registration desk to the closing party. You don’t skimp on any of the other essentials — staffing, promotion, refreshments — so why do that with navigation?

Event map design is important, but you don’t need a cartography degree to prevent a cartastrophe. You need a conscientiously-crafted map so attendees can get where they need to be — confidently, punctually, and safely. Here are eight principles (and a free downloadable guide!) to help you make or commission beautiful and informative maps:

1. Your Event Map is a Keystone of the Overall Experience

Default Google Map, Dallas / Customized AIGA DFW Venue map

Your attendees are looking for a substantial, meaningful experience from your event, so give them the best tools and information to make that happen. A well-designed event map is a great way to put the power in their hands, showing them exactly how to get where they need to go.

It’s a must-have feature of attendee-centric event collateral, conveying essential details at a glance for users on the go. It frames the event’s physical space and invites your attendees to explore that space. It’s a navigational tool that can be as beautiful as it is life-saving.

2. Ensure Your Map is a Usable, Intuitive Communications Tool

Infographic: Austin parking map / Narrative: New York “Hop On, Hop Off” route map

Maps have one basic purpose: communication! Event maps communicate direct messages in specific contexts, helping your attendees make decisions and take action. Effective event maps help them do that as quickly and easily as possible.

Different maps communicate in different ways. Some keep it short and sweet, with few words, symbols or colors. Others beef up their message with rich storytelling to engage their audience and compel them to act. Event maps may take several forms, but the most useful ones are designed with their attendees’ needs and wants in mind.

3. Always Consider how Attendees Will Use the Map

NOLA Bookfest Map / SXSW 2012 Party Map

Before you create a map, think about what your attendees will need from it and how they will use it. Is your event a smaller local gathering or is it a larger regional conference? What will people need to know most in either instance? How will your map help them find out?

Your attendees might need a quick bite to eat or they might be completely disoriented in a new city. They’ll look for interesting, familiar, or actionable information for help — so your event map should be versatile enough to use in both the most-ideal and least-ideal circumstances.

4. Organize Your Map Data with Format and Quality In Mind

Esri map tour spreadsheet

Okay, you’re sold on making a useful, compelling event map — now what? Get organized! How accessible does your map need to be? How much information will it communicate, and how complex should that presentation be? Will attendees be able to make quick, informed decisions?

Whether you navigate the do-it-yourself minefield alone or get help from a professional design bomb squad, you need to choose a format, organize your data, and develop a quality-control process so your map can walk the talk. This is probably the most critical step of them all, so don’t skimp on it! Details matter, so do your homework.

5. Use the Most Effective Map-Making Tools and Resources

Map Stack by Stamen

There are many, many available map-making options out there. Don’t be intimidated! Whether traditional (static) or interactive (digital), some will be easy to use right out of the box. Some will be more complex and you may need a designer or web developer to help you.

Some tools are cheaper, and some are pricier. The free ones might have a steep learning curve, and the costly ones might come with extensive tutorials — so work with the tools that balance your bottom line with your communications goals.

6. Design with Hierarchy when Styling Color, Type, and Icons

Good visual hierarchy: The Bacara for Ontrapalooza / No hierarchy: Pirate Invasion Meetup

Create a compelling style for your map to help it look good and work well. Include only the minimum essential information. Use purposeful colors, legible type, and meaningful icons within a logical visual hierarchy — what the viewer should see first, second, third, and so on.

How will you differentiate place names? Are your icons understandable on their own, without captions? Do the important elements stand out well against the background? Avoiding visual clutter with a good hierarchy that makes sense at a glance is the key to successful map styling.

7. Maintaining Accuracy is Critical to Avoiding Embarrassing Mapfail

Africa is not Asia. Neither is Europe.

No map is truly 100% accurate — flat maps distort the round earth and round globes distort the large earth — but basic geographical accuracy is as critical as correct spelling. It’s essential for accessibility and convenience, and speaks volumes about your overall values.

So no, absolute accuracy isn’t needed — but for the most part, labels, location and distance have to be correct. Oh sure, John Oliver’s manic rants about map illiteracy are funny — but you don’t want that kind of confusion happening at your event, do you?

South America didn’t fare well on “Last Week Tonight.”

8. Don’t Forget: After the Event, Evaluate Your Map’s Performance

Your post-event checklist already includes a thorough review and analysis of everything: what worked and what didn’t. Determining your event map’s effectiveness can be part of this!

Collect detailed feedback from staffers and attendees about your map, and then refine it for the next event. In your post-event survey, simply ask if the map was easy to use, if it contained all the information attendees needed, and allow attendees a chance to freely comment on ways to improve it.

Want to get mapping right away? Check out this eBook!

Find out how to put this post’s principles into action, with Tight Ship Design’s new eBook, made by yours truly. “Map Design Essentials” is 27 pages of tips & resources for creating beautiful and user-friendly event maps!

You don’t have to be a maphead like me to dig it, but if you plan or produce events, or if you work for people who do, this guide is definitely for you. It covers what you need to know about basic map design, how to use event maps to improve your attendees’ experience, and includes tools and best practices anyone can use to create and customize event maps.

Get it here, and then get mapping!

About Keir DuBois

Keir DuBois is Designer/Co-Owner at Tight Ship and current President of AIGA Santa Barbara. He is a designer by trade and writer by training, wrangling creative projects for print and pixel — brand identity, publication design, event collateral, illustrated maps, or music artwork.

About Tight Ship

Tight Ship creates complete collateral design for events and conferences. Our team delivers compelling visual identity across multiple media to help ensure event attendees anticipate a fun experience before going, enjoy a great time during, and share their memorable stories after each event. Get a look at what we can do for you by contacting us for an exclusive portfolio.



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