In this post we’ll look at how you can bring basemaps and map data into Photoshop and Illustrator and manipulate the data presentation to your heart’s content.

An intro to Photoshop and Illustrator

Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator are the industry standard tools in the graphic design world. Adobe is to graphic design what Esri is for GIS – and both companies have complete dominance over their markets.

Photoshop is a tool that is often used with raster data (that sounds familiar!), particularly photos – photos are, after all, made of lots of pixels. Illustrator tends to be used to work with vector data (another familiar concept!).

Great, we have raster and vector data! However, the words raster and vector have a slightly different take here. Raster data is still made of grid cells, and vector data of points, lines and polygons – so that’s good! But raster often means pixel (or point) based data, while vector means scalable data. You can scale vector data up or down as much as you want, and it will still look sharp – a vector map of New Zealand will look as good printed on A4 as on a billboard. Raster data is made of pixels and has an intrinsic physical size to it (resolution). If you try to print a raster document that was made for A4 on a billboard you’ll get an image that looks very blocky, with very large pixels.

An example of vector versus raster images. Vector lines always look sharp, no matter how much you zoom in. Raster date will start to look pixelated if you zoom past its original resolution.

(As an aside, if you’re wondering what’s the right [or minimum] resolution you should use for printing, the answer is 300dpi – dpi standing for Dots Per Inch, i.e. the number of printed dots in one square inch of an image printed by a printer).

Why do it?

So, why bother bringing basemaps and map data into Photoshop or Illustrator? I can think of at least three reasons:

  • Fine control over the display of every graphic element in a map. To Esri’s credit, styling maps is much easier in ArcGIS Pro, but I still have scars from trying to style maps in ArcMap.
  • Use maps or data to tell a story. Maps may not necessarily have the center stage in books, articles or web pages, but a picture is still worth a thousand words.
  • For creative endeavours! Sky is the limit here.

Let’s do this!

To get started, we need to have Photoshop or Illustrator installed (you can download trials from Adobe’s website). The next step is installing the ArcGIS Maps for Adobe Creative Cloud plugin. The plugin is available for download on Esri’s website. The installation is a pretty straight forward process (although you may have to restart Photoshop or Illustrator if you have them open).

Right, so now that we have the Esri plugin installed, let’s open Illustrator and start mapping. Let’s create a new document, A4 size (vector data is scalable, so we can change the size later).

First, we need to make sure that the plugin window is displayed:

And here’s a sign in screen:

Choose “ArcGIS Online” to sign in using the Lincoln University credentials. If the process stalls halfway through, try again.

Here’s our plugin window after we sign in:


This the Mapboard window. We’ll use this window to set the extent, scale and size of the map.

The yellow bar is prompting us to draw a map extent. Let’s set our map extent to New Zealand. You may need to try several times until the extent tool kicks in. I’ve set the map extent to the artboard size (A4) just to make things easier.

(Ed. Wow – gotta figure out how she did that animated GIF!)

Great, now that we have our map extent defined, let’s add some data. Make sure the mapboard we’ve just drawn is selected (by clicking its name) and then hit “Preview”:

Another window appears. This is where we can add data to the map extent we just defined:

 Click “Add Content” on the top left, and we’ll see a bunch of options (more info on what it all means here). Because we’re using our Lincoln account, we have access to online data available on the Lincoln Portal, as well as the larger ArcGIS Online Portal and the Living Atlas of the World. Pretty cool! If you have uploaded the data you want to use to ArcGIS Online, you can easily import it into Illustrator this way. We’ll use the option “Add Layers”. We should be able to add a layer from a local file, but I didn’t have much luck importing a local shapefile. Instead, we’ll go with plan B: prepare the data in ArcGIS Pro and then publish it to the Lincoln Portal as a Web Layer. We’ve covered this in class and the labs so I’ll skip this part.

Let’s click “Add Content” and then “Add Layers”:

 A new window appears. Note all the options on the left for adding data.

Let’s go to ArcGIS Online, find the web layer we just published and copy the URL of that web page:

 Back to Illustrator now. Let’s paste the URL of our web layer, hit enter if needed et voilà! Our web layer appears. Click on the plus button below the layer name to add the data to our map. The plus button changes to a spinner, and all going well the data was added to our map compilation window and we can close this window now.

 Let’s change our basemap. Go to “Add Content” again > “Add Layers”. Our popup window appears again. Choose “ArcGIS Online” on the left, and search for “vector” at the top – remember, vector here means sharp images at any resolution. I invite you to explore some of the basemaps available, there’s some pretty wild stuff there. Let’s go with “Dark Gray Canvas”, and click “Close” at the bottom once the map gets added:

Here’s our new basemap! Let’s also remove the topographic basemap that was there by default as we no longer need it.

Almost there! We’re now ready to import our map data into Illustrator! Hit the “Sync” button…

And we get a “Are you sure” type of message. Hit “OK”…

We get a “Generating” spinner (this might take a while)…

And here’s our map and data in Illustrator!
(Pro tip: now is a good time to save the file).  (Ed. It’s always a go
od time to save your map.)

 Zooming in a bit, we’ll notice that our contours layer is a bit wonky. Not to worry, we can fix this later. All of our data exists in Illustrator as vector layers, and we can change their appearance (and also location, so caution!) as much as we want.


Note how our contour layer and the basemap are neatly organized on their own sub-layers. Even better, the basemap has its different elements separated – so we can easily select and edit all labels, land areas and backgrounds. Different maps – and at different zoom levels – have even more detail: roads, land usage, boundaries, etc. Because these elements are all neatly organised, they are very easy to adjust or remove.

Here’s our final image after some styling:

 I’ve realised after importing the map data into Illustrator that, if we want a high level of detail for the basemap and data, we’d probably be better off choosing the highest level of detail available for in the mapboard option instead of choosing the artboard size (A4). Something to keep in mind for next time. Although the data is in vector format, we get more or less detail depending on the zoom level. This makes sense – the more zoomed in we are, the more points/lines/polygons we get for a specific area, because that extra information is important. We don’t need information about roads if we’re looking at a world map but this is certainly handy when we’re trying to find the fastest route to the nearest supermaket. Having this much level of detail is less of an issue on a static document but if you have to render millions of points in real time that’s a different story. Imagine having to download that much data onto your phone when you’re only tring to find out where the Faroe Islands are!


Final words

The plugin is, shall we say, very experimental and you might experience some frustrating moments along the way. Still, it is pretty cool that we can get map data into Illustrator and Photoshop and use it as a starting point!

This is a very brief intro but hopefully it gives you an idea of what you can do. Check out the Esri website to get a better idea of the possibilities. Here are some cool examples:

Happy mapping!