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  • Writer's pictureHeather Swienton

China's Supercaves: A National Geographic Spotlight

Updated: May 30, 2019

For the first post, I thought I'd highlight a map I shared a few months back on my Cartography Spotlight from National Geographic! Curated by David Lambert in July 2014, I discovered this piece of art from the NatGeoMaps instagram page showcasing a map on China's Supercaves. Here is an article talking about the natural wonder if this subject matter is just as intriguing to you as the map itself: Scroll down to the Conclusion for my overall opinion of this work of art.

Cartographic Elements

What first struck me about this map was the multiple layers at play. The foreground grabs your attention with the intricate cave system, the main point of the map, showcasing an insightful and detailed look beneath the ground. The depiction of the cave used looks life-like, especially with the use of hillshade and shadows on the exterior of thee cave as well as the large shadow below it, making it appear to float.

The natural flow of the design takes you clockwise around following the text with a modern sans serif font. The pairing of the white and light yellow color choice on the font to separate text from titles is subtle enough while maintaining a theme that matches the color scheme of the cave system itself. The dark background gives way to the centerpiece of the map, and creates an order in which the audience views every element of the map. As your eyes drift from the main focus of the nearly three-dimensional cave, you begin to investigate other elements like the inset map system just above.

Inset Maps

Unfortunately I couldn't find a higher resolution version of the map, but this shouldn't stop up from appreciating the flow of inset maps at the top here. Moving left to right, we get a more detailed view of the area of interest with the help of arrows directing where to look, each with a more enlarged area. The only thing I love more than an inset map inside a circle is a free-floating inset map, which we have multiple of here to the left and right of the circle. The detail work in the font choice, size and placement even within each of these three mini-maps is something to appreciate in my opinion. Even in the third map (far right), you can see the arrow then points to the main cave system, completing the flow-chart inset map system leading you right back where you initially started, but now with more knowledge.


Something I love playing with in my maps is overlapping elements across borders to give an edgy vibe (pun intended). As you can see in two instances on this map, this cartographer did this with the tip of the cave system overlapping onto the lighter gray section along the top, and again with the circular inset map bleeding onto the darker gray portion of the map. I feel like this breaks the classic move of "staying in the lines" and gives a modern feel to the overall design.

Additionally, another artistic detail I liked was the use of thin borders for emphasis. Just like thin white lines were used to border each of the geographic areas/chambers in the image to the left, that same thin white line was used on the cave system to emphasize the slice where the image of the cave was 'cut into' per say, allowing us to see inside, as you can see I've pointed out with the white arrow below.

Also, showing the Boeing 747 for scale was a great way to help the audience to fully grasp the true size of this underground wonder.


Overall, the design of this map, as all of National Geographic's works are, is clean and eye-catching; it showcases how effective the element of contrast can be, especially between figure and ground as well as light and dark colors. The visual hierarchy is simple, allowing for a plethora of facts and details to be shown with ease. This map is efficient for the audience to gather information, yet aesthetically pleasing and clearly a work of art.

National Geographic's instagram and twitter feeds of map-of-the-day's always spark my interest; this will not be the last time I share their work. What other elements did you like in this map? Comment below to share your thoughts!

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