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  • Writer's pictureAlexander Code

Static Maps vs Interactive Maps: When to Use Them

Updated: Dec 6, 2021

By Alex Code

“I need a map.” It’s a phrase we’re happy to hear often. It sounds simple on its surface, but the tricky thing for us is knowing what someone is picturing when they say those words. To some people, a map is a physical thing that they can fold up, put in their bag or pocket and venture out into the world with. To other people, a map is for presentation and should be able to deliver a message and/or aesthetic. To other people, a map is something digital that they can view on a computer, manipulate and easily share with others. To younger generations, the only maps they may know are ones curated for them and delivered via a mobile app. There’s no right answer, just options.

Through the rest of this post, I’ll be walking you through the first step in the “I want a map” decision tree: static vs interactive. For the purpose of this article we’ll define the two as follows.

  • Static Map - a stand-alone image which can be delivered and displayed without special software and cannot be manipulated by the person using it. Static maps can be delivered by digital file (PNG, JPG, PDF), included in digital presentations, or printed on paper or other media.

  • Interactive Map - a map that is integrated into special software and viewed with a computer or mobile device. The person using the map can interact with the map. S/he can change the view/location, zoom in and out, view information about things on the map through pop-ups or panels, and potentially even edit the data.

Now that we’ve defined “static maps” and “interactive maps,” we’ll go into examples and when to use them.

Static Maps

Static maps are generally what you find out in the physical world. Examples include everything from maps at hiking trailheads to maps of stores inside a mall to maps displayed as an image in a PowerPoint presentation.

Static maps are custom made for a certain purpose. They are generated once and can be used again and again for that purpose. They shine when you have a specific goal whether that is to provide information about a geographic area of importance or to support a pitch to potential investors. For example, a road map typically gives the most visual importance to roads and the places people usually use roads to go. That means cities and particular popular attractions get added to the road map, but nothing else gets displayed.

When talking to customers, we often talk about “visual hierarchy” which refers to the level of importance you want information to have. If you’re making a map of potential sites for a new hotel, you want those potential sites to be very high in the visual hierarchy, making them pop out to the map reader. You might also want public utilities to be displayed with water and sewer services. These may be of medium visual importance and you probably don’t care about including much, if any, information about local ecology (unless protected species are nearby). If you’re sharing this information with potential investors, then static maps are the way to go because we can work with you to control exactly what you want those investors to see. By tailoring the map to your cause and providing it as a static file or media, you help ensure that they won’t get lost or confused.

Wild and Open Spaces in an Urban Era shows parks in and around the United States' 45 largest urban areas.

To view a full-size version of this static map, click here.

Static Map Pros
  • Very customizable

  • Easy to include your branding

  • Can deliver a focused message

  • Easy to reproduce & share

  • Require little or no technological skill to use

Static Map Cons
  • The number of data layers should be limited to maintain focus

  • Looking at one area at multiple scales requires different maps (or insets)

  • Unable to update maps that have already been distributed

When to Use Static Maps

At the end of the day we generally recommend static maps for the following situations:

  • You’re trying to deliver a specific message to a specific audience

  • The information that will be in your map doesn’t change often or ever

  • You want to be able to easily distribute the exact same information to many people

  • Your map will be printed or used in a presentation

Interactive Maps

Interactive maps have exploded in popularity in the last decade, starting with services like Mapquest and Google Maps and now progressing to a myriad of web-based and mobile applications. These digital maps provide opportunities for nearly limitless data, user interactivity and the ability to provide information that would require innumerable paper maps to replicate.

Interactive maps can be general in nature or specific to a purpose. For example, Google Maps or Apple Maps are both titans that can provide some degree of information for just about every common activity people do day to day. However, they don’t provide detailed information related to many industries, demographics or ecological concerns. To find that type of information, you need purpose-built maps.

Many of the same stylistic concerns, such as visual hierarchy, are important here too. However, since users can turn on and off data layers, you have much more leeway to pack lots of information into the map and to give the person using the application controls to toggle the map so they’re seeing just the information they want to see. You also don’t have to worry about the scale of the map because the person using the map can zoom in and out and pan around the map. Interactive maps are great when you have data that is changing frequently because you can create the map, send a URL or app to people, and then update the data in the map whenever you want. The next time people access the map, they’ll see your updates. You can also tie additional information to the locations on your map because people can click/tap on a point of interest and information can pop up to show data, descriptions, images, videos or links to other resources.

Ecomonic Benefits of Outdoor Recreation map with interactive dropdown showing different economic metrics.

To play around with this example of an interactive map, click here.

Interactive Map Pros
  • Can handle large amounts of data

  • Users see updates seamlessly in real time

  • Allows the user to have control over the location, zoom level and contents of the map

Interactive Map Cons
  • Requires users to be more tech savvy

  • Requires users have access to the web through a digital device

  • Generally costs more

When to Use Interactive Maps

At the end of the day we generally recommend interactive maps for most of the following situations:

  • You want to reach an audience that may be in different geographical locations

  • The information may change with frequencies measured in days/months

  • You want to supply the user with larger amounts of information/data

  • You want your audience to have an interactive experience

Making the “Right” Choice

The sections above provide some of the information and guidelines that we consider when we’re discussing mapping projects with people who contact us. Every situation is a little different so we always like to talk through people’s goals with them.

Here are some examples of questions we routinely ask:

  • Who is your audience?

  • How large is your audience?

  • What is the purpose of the map? What utility do you want your map to provide to that audience?

  • Where will the audience use the map?

  • How do you want people to access your map and will you want to charge people money for it?

  • Do you want people to be able to add or change the data in the map?

  • What is your budget?

If you have questions about maps or an upcoming project you would like some help with, shoot us an email at or give us a call at (833)254-6345.

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