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Print Great Maps from GIS

Describes techniques for ensuring high quality paper maps from your printers and plotters

Designing a map in GIS is a good start to producing an effective publication, but how you print that map can have a big impact on its usefulness. 

All printers:

  • Colors you see onscreen will not look the same from one printer to another (especially from PCs) - designers often use color calibration software to match what you see onscreen to a printer (using an ICC profile), but this can be challenging to do.
  • Use your GIS software to generate a color print of its basic color palette and use this as a reference as you are creating your map - your monitor colors may not look good, but the final print will be much better.  To find out more about how to print such a palette from ArcGIS or ArcView software, go here and search for " print palette".  

Inkjet Tips:

  • Inkjets make the best map prints, but can be slow compared to color lasers.
  • Get an inkjet printer that will produce 13"x18" plots (small posters) - See PC World for reviews on good printers.
  • Use glossy inkjet paper for outstanding prints.
  • Take glossy prints to a color copy shop where they can produce very high quality color copies.

Black and White Laser Tips:

  • Use heavy color laser paper for best results.
  • For tones on a map, use black, white and at most three shades of gray - more than three gray shades are usually very difficult to distinguish. Create a test print with five outline blocks and place four tones in them, plus a white box, to determine what works best.
  • If you are going to make xerographic copies of the map, test your grayscale selections beforehand to ensure that the second or third generation copy will still be legible.

Color Laser Tips:

  • Use heavy color laser paper (28 or 32 lb., bright white), or glossy heavy color laser paper.
  • If the map is likely to be copied by others, make an early test on a black and white copier to see how your colors will reproduce.
  • Keep color laser mechanisms clean and turn the printers off at night (too warm and colors can suffer).


  • Inkjet plotters come in most any size and configuration - see Hewlett Packard Co. and Epson for good choices.  Prices range from $1,000-$8,000+.
  • Choose plotters than can print 24" or more in width, and get as much memory as your budget can afford. If possible, choose plotters with archival printing capacity (to minimize fading of prints over time).
  • Plotter paper - it's best to use heavy bond paper, as it holds ink better and makes a better print. Generally costs just a bit more than regular bond paper.  For special prints, photo glossy paper can be used, although it is more expensive.  Other papers can be found that are waterproof (Tyvek), or can support other specialty uses.
  • Remember that GIS programs have to first create a "plot" file, which can be time consuming.  In ESRI software print to EPS files and then plot them using the ArcPress utility, or plot to Adobe PDF and print from there.  If you are going to reprint the map, you can save the plot file (RTL, PDF or even just the EPS). You can save disk space by using a compression utility like Winzip, which reduces these file sizes by manyfold.
  • If you don't have a plotter, look for a blue print service or copy shop. If you take them an EPS or Acrobat file, they can usually print a good map (but may be expensive - check their prices beforehand).  See if you know people who are architects, engineers or planners and who might have a plotter, or find a governmental agency who might help.

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