In this post we look at alternative shapes for data frames to create more professional maps.

It was with great pleasure that I learned how to do something new with ArcMap the other day.  It’s increasingly impossible to know everything there is to know about GIS so knowing how to do new things is always welcome (especially when someone else figures out how to do them…).  This one had to do with making maps.  To illustrate this I’ll start with a fairly standard sort of map.  One of the projects we switch in and out with the GIS courses is finding the best place for a small windfarm – classic GIS stuff.  The map below shows the overall study area with three inset maps that zoom in on three potential areas and is somewhat typical of many maps we see for this project:

(Oh jeez – I can just feel my students critiquing this map…and well they should!  I put this together rather quickly…)

Imagine my surprise when I saw one student’s map that looked like this (with a hat tip to Niranjana):

Well, that’s quite a different look!  Using circles instead of rectangles for the inset maps adds a potentially nice effect.  Getting here was a two step process for me.  On my map I had four data frames, one for the main map and three for the insets.  They all have exactly the same data in them just shown at different scales and with different symbology.  to get the circular shape to one of the inset maps, one can right-click on the data frame name and go to Properties > Frame:

Notice how the Rounding box is set to 100% (it’s 0 by default – that’s what makes it rectangular).  After clicking okay, the data frame shape changes to something a bit more oblate in my case:

Next I can grab one of the sizing boxes and drag its shape into something more circular.  That will take care of the inset map frames but my extent rectangles on the main map won’t have changed yet.  To change them, I need to go to the main map data frame properties and then the Extent Indicators tab, highlight each inset map data frame one by one and change the Frame properties:

Notice that I’ve set the Rounding to 100% again.  Clicking OK will force those extent rectangles to now be circles.  If I resize the inset map data frames these will change as well.  I also drew in the leader lines using the Draw toolbar with the line option.

But wait!  There’s more!

With these options we’re pretty much constrained to rectangles and ovals for our data frames.  We can also use custom shapes to fit maps into odd corners and spaces.  At the risk of making a fairly busy map even busier, I’ll illustrate by adding a map of Akaroa in the lower right-hand corner of my main map.  First I’ll add a new data frame and add the topo map into it.  Without doing anything special I end up with something like this (I’ve turned off the inset map base maps as they’re coming in off the internet and make redrawing slow.  I’ll need to remember to turn them back on for my final version):

I’ll switch over the data view for this next bit.  Again using the Draw toolbar, I’ll draw a polygon graphic shape that will serve as my new data frame border.  I need to know its rough outline and how it will fit in with other features on my main map:

Next, in the Data Frame Properties, I go to the Data Frame tab, set the Clip Options to “Clip to Shape”, click Specify Shape… and the Data Frame Clipping windows opens (at right below).  Here tick “Outline of Selected Graphic(s)” (the graphic needs to be selected before this is an option):

Clicking enough OKs and switching over to the Layout view gets me here:

Lest you think this was completely plain sailing there were a number of things I had to do before this final version including:

  • Change the graphic fill to no colour;
  • Resize the Akaroa data frame to fit the space which involved some zooming and panning;
  • resize my scale bar so it didn’t overlap with the Akaroa inset;
  • Turn all the inset basemaps back on.

Note that there are other options for defining the frame shape including polygon layers, data view extent or setting your own extents.  There’s a lot more tweaking I’d like to do before I’d be ready to release this into the wild, but you get the idea.

Hopefully, being able to do custom frame shapes gives us a bit more flexibility in making effective maps.  In the end, of course, the aim is making effective maps and this is just one more arrow in your cartographic quiver.  Use it wisely, young Jedi.