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Map label options in Illustrator

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I am relatively new to AI. I am trying to figure out how to make my label more legible in AI if there are crossing over political boundaries, roads, or rivers. In ArcGIS I try to use a background color as halo to make my label legible. I am sure there are similar or better workflows options in AI. I would appreciate if anyone is willing to share a workflow or trick to make my label more legible. I am using AI CS5.5 version. The annotation labels were export from ArcGIS to AI file format. 


Many thanks,




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There are many options!

  • Use knockouts to knock out the underlying boundary
  • Drop shadow (appearance effect)
  • Additional outline (appearance effect)
  • Blur/glow outline (appearance effect)
  • Just cut off the underlying boundary, and hide

Hugo Ahlenius
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David Medeiros

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For places where levels intersect lines on a map there are two primary methods I use (in order of preference):


1) move or resize the label if at all possible to avoid the conflict

2) cut the line work and remove or hide the section under the label (this is called a knockout)


The other options frax mentions are to me more about making the labels stand out from the map background, not resolving line conflicts, but they may help there as well. Adding an outer glow would be similar to the halo effect in Arc, but more subtle. If applied correctly it can be almost unnoticeable while still separating the type from a busy background image (like a hill shade).


Overall the first choice should always be to resolve the conflict by moving the label to preserve both it and the line. It's not always possible but you want to try this first before just making a bunch of Halo's or KOs.


Remember too, with large area labels (like state labels, major geographic features etc.), you can sometimes space and nudge the label just enough so that lines under the label run through the letter spaces. This allows the label to run over the line but there is no need to cut or hide the line in most cases.

GIS Reference and Instruction Specialist, Stanford Geospatial Center.




Dennis McClendon

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Besides these suggestions, sometimes this situation presents the opportunity to ask whether the underlying lines are too dark to begin with.  I think the eye can follow linear features that are very thin and subtle in color.  So perhaps the political boundary could be a light gray, the river could be a much lighter blue, etc.  In addition, think about using white (or very light) lines in a medium gray or tan ground for such elements as political boundaries.  It's often very effective to have some linear features reversed out of the background, and others, particularly labels, in dark colors in the foreground.

Dennis McClendon, Chicago CartoGraphics



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One trick (I've heard called the Allan Cartography trick, learned from Neil Allan at NACIS some years ago): if you are generating a map for print, and the lines you want to mask out are in one ink color (say black) while the background you don't want to mask (light green, for instance), you can create an outline/halo to the type in 1% black and then set that to overprint. When output, that halo will only knock out the black ink.


Also, I've sometimes had luck making halos semi-transparent: gives the label more prominence, but the halo itself is not so hard-edged.


One thing that may not be clear from previous comments is that for text, there are two ways to get an outline. Simply applying a line to a selected piece of text will apply that line on the character level, where you cannot move it behind the fill in the Appearance pallette. The common habit here is to create a duplicate label and place it behind (that's how we learned to do it in Freehand back int he old days). However, if you go directly to that appearance pallette, and "Add stroke," it adds it to the overall text object, not to the characters, and then you can move the order of fills and strokes, and so place the stroke behind the fill. This then also means you only have one object to move. If you want to apply an effect to a whole bunch of text, you may also have better results grouping them first, or applying the effect to the whole layer.

Nat Case

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