Eric Quigley asked about labeling recently and that prompted me to think a little about how I actually go about labeling a map. Often it’s the last thing to get done, but it’s also the most important. A map without labels is just a pretty picture, it’s not useful. So, it’s worth taking some care getting labels right.
This is a photoshop tutorial, but these techniques are almost identical in Gimp.
Today I’ll be covering labeling locations. So I won’t be handling titles, terrain labels, rivers or any of that. Basically, if it’s a place adventurers can pillage, this is how we’ll label it.
1. The Font
Pick something easy to read. I know we all like Deutsche Gothic and Pieces of Eight, but save those fonts for your title. The labels should be in something clean and simple. Here I’ve used Cochin, which is a nice serifed font that’s a little unusual so doesn’t immediately scream ‘Times New Roman’ at the viewer. Use different font weights to designate different locations. You can also use different capitalization. For example, all caps for Capital Cities, small caps for other cities, and capitalized lower case for everything else. In the Character Dialog in Photoshop there’s a small caps option, which is a great thing to know about.
Don’t use pure black. This I learned the hard way after doing the Midgard maps for Wolfgang Baur and Open Design. Black may read well on the screen, but it doesn’t always print well. Here I’ve used a deep saturated brown.
I try to line up labels centered on the icon if I can. However, if there’s a lot of detail in the map, you want to move the label to the nearest uniform space. So, place the label over all forest, all plains, or all water. Try to avoid placing the text over a line, such as a forest edge, coastline or river. The line will mess up the lines of your text and make it hard to read.
4. A subtle glow
Flat text on a map looks, well, flat. I add a gentle glow to the text to help pull it out from the background. I’ve given two examples here – one that looks good, and one that looks terrible. The glow on Holgren is an outer glow, with blend mode set to Screen and opacity set to 75% and a size of 5px. It’s a very light yellow. You can see that the hard edge makes this look a bit nasty. Basically the sharp edge of the glow is competing with the sharp edge of the text, rather than complementing it. On Tranton, the glow is identical, but it has a size of 20px. This smoothes out the glow and has the effect of gently nudging the text out of the background. It’ll also knock out some of the background detail, making it easier to read a label above a more complicated piece of terrain. It’s a powerful technique, but can easily be over used! Be careful – in this case less is usually more.
As always, throw any questions in the comments here and I’ll do my best to answer them. Feel free to share this around. More tutorials over on the tutorials page. Oh, and the map and icons are the Iconic Island.