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Idea 18 Making Pictorial Maps

Making Pictorial Maps

This project idea was contributed by Peter S. Fox

The development of cartographic skills is part of every GCSE specification, and the techniques explored here can be applied to the investigation of many different topics.


Pictorial maps have a history that stretches back centuries. Unlike regular maps, the emphasis is less on illustrating a particular area to scale and more on the selection of particular landscape features in order to illustrate a place or process and sometimes to emphasize a specific feature. Used in the classroom, they can help students to visualise the nature of different and contrasting areas of a country or indeed contrast different countries themselves. Pictorial maps can be very simple, a matter of collecting images to illustrate different places, or extremely sophisticated, requiring a deep understanding of a place in order to be able to select the ‘correct’ image for the purpose of the map.

Pictorial maps may require a considerable amount of design and creativity as well as skills associated with finding and manipulating images from a variety of sources. They can also form a type of Geographical Information System or GIS. In this project idea, examples of several types of maps are used, from the simplistic to the complex. It will explain how pictorial maps can be constructed and provides some examples of student work.

What is a map?

Maps are just representations of places and located information.

“An atlas is read with a mission; something needs to be found out from the basic factual well of information. Atlas maps are like the game boards before the game has begun. All the pieces are in position, but no one is playing yet. A pictorial map, however, is a different game, where the information from the atlas is rearranged to highlight some part of it.” (Holmes, 1991)

Students should be encouraged to draw or make maps that have a meaning to them; a map that they understand, whether it is of their own local area or a place that they know little of but want to investigate by undertaking research.

Activity 1 – Simple maps on Microsoft Publisher

Even the simplest of pictorial maps can nevertheless be quite effective and can help students to visualise places.

A computer room or a set of laptops is required for this activity. Good maps can be made in one 50 minute lesson. A demonstration can be done on a whiteboard, perhaps as a PowerPoint if required. Microsoft Publisher or a similar desk top publishing package is easier to use to make these maps than Microsoft Word because pictures and details have to be placed on and around the map. Text boxes in Word are sometimes difficult to manipulate and students can get quite frustrated.

Students can make their own map from scratch but a ready prepared blank frame can provide a helpful outline. Care needs to be taken in selecting the map used so that it reflects the nature of the images that students are required to collect. It is sometimes helpful to provide students with an atlas so that they can identify key places easily rather than relying on the electronic map. It is a good idea to set the paper size to A3, as A4 is just too small.

Below is an example of one student’s work.

The Richardson Map to the right was completed as part of a unit on Rivers. Students were asked to select a British river and produce a map to show how the river landscape and use changed from source to mouth. This is Ryan’s work. Ryan had two difficulties in making his map. The first was finding a suitable base map and the second was organising the pictures so that the label arrows didn’t cross. It does illustrate how the landscape and use of the river changes from source to mouth.

Activity 2 – Adding data to electronic maps

In both Microsoft Publisher and Word, ‘callouts’ (found in the Shapes or Autoshapes menu) can be used to add data to maps. The resulting text box and line can be resized and repositioned easily. This is probably best illustrated by an example.

In this example Megan spent a lesson of 50 minutes adding information about Holiday destinations for UK tourists. The data was collected from the National Statistics website so that it was both up to date and manageable.

A map had been scanned in prior to the lesson so that Megan could plot the information. She chose to use hexagons, coloured proportionately to the number of tourists although the blues she chose were quite difficult to differentiate on the finished product and all the ray lines converge on Nottingham!

On the final product the underlying layer with the map on it can be deleted to leave a diagrammatic map.

Activity 3 – More complex maps

The task here is to produce a map of South America to show which countries are rich, and which are poor. South America is chosen because it is a sub-continent with a reasonable number of countries but not too many. Work on the definition of rich and poor should be completed before the maps are drawn with each student producing a table using a variety of different factors to work out which of these countries are rich and poor using a variety of economic, demographic and social indicators.

An electronic base map is to be provided for the students. This could be produced by scanning an atlas map, importing it into Publisher and drawing around the countries using the freehand drawing tool in the auto shapes menu. Not an easy task. Once the country outlines have been completed the base map can be deleted to leave only the country shapes. These can then be colour filled, or a picture could even be imported into it.

When my class did the activity, some students were not happy about the quality of my country outlines and decided to complete their own ‘better’ versions, as shown below.

My map is shown on the left below. Both maps still have the base; scanned maps of South American behind them which have not yet been deleted. As an experiment on my map I illustrated with Brazil how a picture could be used as a fill for a country.

Sophie’s map is on the right. She decided to retrace the countries leaving gaps around them so that they were better defined. She only missed one out! Sophie has then coloured them in pink and brown indicating according to her calculations if the country was rich or poor.


Taking it further – Customising maps in Photoshop Elements

Maps can be customised using any type of photo editing software, which is very useful for adding information or transforming the map in certain ways. Make your own Maps (Davis, 2008) provides not only a disc of electronic maps especially designed to be used with Photoshop Elements but has clear instructions as to how they might be used. One especially helpful function is to use ‘Trace colour’ which produces top quality outline maps. All the normal photo editing tools can be used and because the map is made up of a number of layers that are shown on the right of the map these can be turned off and or on to include or exclude different features from the map making it a true GIS like system.


Holmes, N. (1992) Pictorial Maps. The Herbert Press.
Davis, G. (2008) Make Your Own Maps. Ilex

Picture Credits

Fig 1 Example of a 19th century panoromic map. This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired. This applies to the United States, Canada, the European Union and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 70 years. Source.

Fig 2 Example of a pictorial map from 1981. This image has been released into the public domain by its author, Jean-Louis Rheault. This applies worldwise. Source.

Other images are the work of the teacher and students. Thanks go to Ryan, Sophie and Megan for the use of their maps.


Read more about maps in our Mapping Our Globe area. This area of the site looks at some of the basic principles of creating and using world maps, and the advantages of using equal-area world maps in learning geography.

There is an excellent article about making maps in Microsoft Word on the Juicy Geography site. It also gives you some ideas of where you can get good base maps from.


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