Map Design with Print Composer

This exercise will show you the basic map layout capabilities of QGIS. It will simply show how to use the provided tools. Designing maps requires a series of review and evaluation of the map message, intended readers and a balance of applying cartographic rules and violating them! Any state-of-the-art GIS application cannot compensate for a good map design.

It is assumed that you have prepared the data layer symbology in main QGIS application before using the print composer.

Before we begin, a list of commonly used pieces of a map layout is explained succinctly by Krygier and Wood’s Making Maps book.

Elements of a typical map layout

  • 1. Title - map titles vary, but should attempt to include the what, where and when of the map. Type size should be 2 or 3 times the size of the map type itself. A subtitle, in smaller type, is appropriate for longer or more complex map subjects.
  • 2. Legend - this is the key to interpreting the map. If it fails, your goals for the map will fail. However, don’t insult your map’s readers by including obvious symbols in the legend.
  • 3. Scale - large- and medium-scale maps should include a scale indicator, particularly if readers need to make measurements in the map. If your map’s users want to reduce or increase the size of the map the visual scale is the best option (it will remain accurate even if scaled). Small-scale maps (of the entire earth or substantial portion of it) should not include a simple visual scale because such maps contain substantial scale variations.
  • 4. Explanatory text - you may not be able to express everything you need your map’s readers to understand with the map itself. Use text blocks on the map to communicate information about the map content, its broader context, and your goals. Explain your interpretations of your map’s patterns with text: tell your map’s readers (in addition to showing them with the map) what you think about the mapped data. Readers may agree or disagree with your interpretation,but your interpretation and intent will be clearly communicated.
  • 5. Directional indicator - only needed if: 1) the map is not oriented to the north; 2) the map is of an area unfamiliar to your intended audience. Directional indicators can often be left off the map. If included, avoid large and complex directional indicators: they are relatively unimportant and should not be visually prominent.
  • 6. Sources, credits - each map should include: data source(s), map maker and date when it was made, map projection and coordinate system information.
  • 7. Border - a border drawn around the map, title, legend scale, and directional indicator to put together your map. If you add a border, make it narrow, preferably in grey: so that it won’t be too noticeable. Or, a border may not be necessary.

Adding a map

To add the QGIS map canvas, click the mActionAddMap Add Map from toolbar and drag a rectangle on the map canvas with the left mouse button to add the map.


General options for the Map Item Properties tab are as follows:

  • Map Dialog - the Preview defines preview modes either Cache, Render, and Rectangle. The Map dialog allows you to resize the map according to width, height or scale. You can also set map Rotation in degree increment clockwise.
  • Extents Dialog - map extents area allows you to specify the map extent using Y and X min/max values (depending on your project’s CRS) or clicking the Set to map canvass extent button. Click the Update preview in the Map dialog if you changed the view of your map in the main Map View of QGIS.
  • Grid dialog - allows option to add or disable grid in the map. You can specify grid type (line or cross), increment, annotation, colors and font types.
  • General options dialog - you can define color and outline width for the element frame, set a background color and opacity for the map item.

Adding a Legend

Click the mActionAddLegend Add Legend for the legend.


Legend Item Tab Properties

  • General dialog - you can specify legend title, font and colors, legend symbol size and spaces.
  • Legend items dialog - you can specify changing item order, edit layer names, remove and restore items of the list.
  • General options dialog - define color and outline width for the element frame, set a background color and opacity for the map canvas.


While you can change legend items title and order within the Print Composer Legend items dialogs, it is better to change them within the main QGIS Map Legend view. This is very useful especially when your are creating several map layouts of the same data layers.

Adding a Scale Bar

Click the mActionScaleBar Add Scalebar for the scale bar.


Scalebar options allow you to specify segment size, bar units, style, height and width, scale bar units, font and other options.

Title and other text boxes

Click the mActionLabel Add Label for various elements. You can specify font type, size and colors. Use this tool for adding title and other explanatory text.

Other options

Print Composer offers additional layout tools similar to other drawing applications. Among these are:

  • mActionAddBasicShape adding basic shape (useful for borders and frames);
  • mActionRaiseItems element render ordering (raise or lower element draw order);
  • mActionAlignLeft aligning several elements;
  • mActionGroupItems grouping and mActionUngroupItems ungrouping elements and;
  • mActionAddImage adding external images (useful for adding logos and photos).

Explore these tools in composing your map. Full descriptions are available in the QGIS manual.

Exporting your final map

The options for importing your maps are:

  • export to image or SVG - this is useful if you want your maps embedded in other documents;
  • print directly to a printer and;
  • export as pdf.

To export your map to PDF, click the mActionSaveAsPDF Export as PDF button and provide a filename in the dialog.