3. Shape Your Text Boxes Like Funnels

Type and Text

It’s amazing how simple happenstance can change your thinking forever.

One evening in the fall of 2000, I randomly pulled a graphic design book off the shelf at a Barnes & Noble Bookstore in State College, Pennsylvania. I flipped to a page in the book about text layout and balance. I read about “text form” for a about minute and put the book back on the shelf.

Had I been bumped into, distracted by another book cover, or not in the right frame of mind, I would have forgotten what I read immediately. For whatever reason, the advice that I read stuck with me. And now I relay it to you.

Visual design is all about form. Like building blocks, every visual you create has it’s own form and typically contributes to a larger form.

Take the letter “t” for example.

The letter “t” is its own visual symbol. Printed alone on a piece of paper, it could be considered a visual form in and of itself. A piece of minimalist art, I suppose.

The letter “t” is its own form here. A masterpiece of design when you think about it.

Yet, the letter “t” also contributes to other forms when not used in isolation. It helps form the word “it.” Another fantastic masterpiece!

The letter “t” contributes to the form of “it,” another masterpiece.

The word “it” can be used in a sentence to create a new form, and so on…

The letter “t” contributes to “it,” which contributes to the form of “it’s,” which in turn contributes to the e.e. cummings-esque sentence.

Text blocks are groups of letters, combined into groups of words, that all combine to create a visual form within your map — the largest visual form with which we’re concerned. (Here we go… Gestalt again!)

Just to make this clear: Long blocks of text have their own form. And you, as the cartographer, you have control over what they look like and how they fit into the form of your overall map.

It all comes down to line breaks. For some reason, we cartographers rarely if ever talk about line breaks! Yet, nothing decides how a block of text is going to fit into your map and balance with other elements more than where you decide to break the lines of text.

Sure, we can change text-alignment, size, color, value, and font. We know that. But one important element of text manipulation is often overlooked — line breaks.

And deciding where

to break a line

is very, very


Here’s the trick according to the random page in a graphic design book that I read in State College, Pennsylvania, one evening when I was much younger.

Always shape your text blocks like an inverted pyramid or half-pyramid. Lines should always get progressively shorter the further down a paragraph you read. I think of it as a funnel, because you want to funnel your map user through a paragraph or text box.

Direct Map User Attention to an End Point with Your Text Boxes

Not only does this trick often make your text easier to read, the form it creates is fluid. It subconsciously guides your map reader’s next eye movements.

Of course, only center-aligned text can be shaped like an inverted pyramid. (Before you center all of your paragraphs, please check out Map Tip #2!)

So the real rule is this:
Every additional line of text in a paragraph or text box should be shorter than the last line. Even if only a little. 

The figure below shows an example of this with left-aligned, right-aligned, and center-aligned text.

Map Tip 3: Funnel your text blocks

Try this with most of your paragraphs or text boxes. You’ll see an immediate improvement in the overall form and balance of your maps.