At first glance, Geographers’ A-Z Street data of Great Britain may look like any other national street and road dataset. It is a standard raster dataset referenced to the British National Grid and includes the typical information associated with data of this type such as street labels, points of interest, important buildings and public spaces.

A_Z Street Ashford

Section of Geographers’ A-Z Map Company Street dataset. A combination of nearly a century of design.

So what makes this map different from other map data? Can this single dataset really claim to be the best?

On our 80th year of operation, I’m here to tell you it can.

This is a truly masterful map that has, arguably been under development since 1936 and will always be under construction as it is maintained. The secret is in its superb attention to its design.

There is a vast quantity of data provided by governments and other organisations that are freely available in the public domain. Anybody can download databases of oil wells, national parks, airports, streets and motorways, boundaries etc and then combine a map together in a GIS and print a map. But what separates a great map from a terrible one is choosing which data to use and how best to present that information for its purpose.

The A-Z Street is a ruthless but brilliant design with one simple function: displaying roads and streets. In this respect, the A-Z has a similarity to Harry Beck’s Tube map – simple yet effective design.

My experience in map making and cartography is as a Geologist and GIS Consultant working in the Petroleum industry making maps for the purpose of presenting exploration or infrastructure spatial information. It is very easy to use GIS software these days and quickly put together a “software-driven” map based on templated symbology and automated label placement. However, looking into more detail about labelling it is significantly more difficult to ensure labels accurately reflect relevant attribution for the map content as well as making sure features are numerically weighted so that the labelling is correct (e.g. a big city name is more important than a village name) for the particular map you are putting together.

Street labels typical of A-Z Street

Labelling is a carefully considered part of the A-Z Design – always displayed and always laid out from the beginning to the end of a street so you know when the road starts and when it finishes.

Typically the output from a map production project using a GIS would have been an imperfect product where there are some messy label overlaps or incorrect information being displayed because of incorrect entry to an attribute table. In these cases the time-constraint to create the map trumps making the perfect cartography.

I consider that there is not a single perfect cartography – it simply cannot exist because maps are designed for a purpose. They are a functional combination of art and science that enables readers to navigate the world around them – and it is A-Z Maps that produce the perfect cartography for road and street users in the United Kingdom.

The A-Z street map style has developed over time to present information both as a clear cohesive whole and in a feature focused way.

Next time we shall have a deeper look into the design features with our Chief Draughtsman.

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