That’s a Relief: Assessing Beauty, Realism, and Landform Clarity in Multilayer Terrain Maps




Terrain maps are often composed of shaded relief along with other raster layers which we call thematic terrain layers to create aesthetically pleasing and clear maps of physical geography. Despite that the interplay of layers is of primary concern to a cartographer, much of the research on terrain mapping has focused on studying terrain layers individually. This research aimed to fill this gap by evaluating the effect of combining shaded relief with thematic terrain layers and assessing ratings of beauty, realism, and landform clarity in an exploratory online user study. Specifically, we tested the combination of: manual, multidirectional, and ray-traced shaded relief with three thematic terrain layers: hypsometric tinting, land cover, and orthoimagery. There are five main findings from this exploratory study: (1) there was a direct correlation between beauty and realism scores, (2) the manual relief we tested was consistently rated lowest for beauty, realism, and landform clarity, and orthoimagery was rated the highest for beauty and realism, (3) shaded relief was more influential than thematic terrain layers on landform clarity ratings, (4) participant’s geographic familiarity had a significant impact in four specific instances of the user study, and (5) neither shaded relief or thematic terrain layers were the sole contributors to map reader perceptions of beauty, realism, or landform clarity. We conclude by identifying limitations in our stimuli design and presenting ideas for future research studies on terrain design.

Author Biography

Carolyn S. Fish, University of Oregon

Dr. Fish is an Assistant Professor of Geography at the University of Oregon. Her research is centered at the intersection between cartography and climate change communication. She has a PhD from Penn State and a masters from Michigan State both in geography and worked for a period of time at Esri. Her research has been funded by the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the National Science Foundation.




How to Cite

Douglass, N. A. K., & Fish, C. S. (2022). That’s a Relief: Assessing Beauty, Realism, and Landform Clarity in Multilayer Terrain Maps. Cartographic Perspectives, (100), 45–66.



Peer-Reviewed Articles