How to create print-quality maps using open source software

Using QGIS and Natural Earth Data to make bespoke maps

I’ve always been a fan of maps, from an illustrated picture atlas of the world that I used to pore over as a child, to a battered USSR-era Cyrillic map of Somalia that I bought from an antique store in Estonia. I also enjoy reading about maps – from the excellent exposition of global politics via ten maps in Prisoners of Geography to articles about the creation of Google Maps. It turns out creating maps is also quite fun.

In the past I have used online tools such as Stamen maps, using OpenStreetMap data, or the Google Maps-based Snazzy Maps. But for bespoke print-quality map creation you need to turn to GIS software.

Introducing QGIS and Natural Earth Data

I was inspired to try QGIS, an open source programme available to download here, after reading an interview with Steven Bernard, Interactive Design Editor at the Financial Times, and seeing examples of the finished maps he had created.

Steven has an excellent YouTube walkthrough guide that I recommend following from start to finish. It takes you through downloading QGIS and installing Natural Earth data to advanced styling and designing animated markers.

You build upon a blank map of the world:

Map 01

Which quickly grows in complexity:

Map 02

I needed to create a map showing four specific European cities, and so the map needed refining and tidying. Here’s the final map in QGIS:

Which can then be exported at print resolution, or (in this case) exported as a SVG file for editing in a vector graphics programme. This allows the labels to be adjusted and other visual tweaks made.

QGIS is a hugely powerful program offering a great deal of customisation. The user manual is 420 pages and perhaps best works as a backup reference, with the YouTube walkthrough offering an accessible way to jump in and create your first map.