Using symbols and styles

A key aspect of creating a beautiful map is the choice of symbols, colors, and map elements that you will use. Not everyone in the GIS community has the design skills necessary to choose elegant symbols and color schemes on their own or apply them effectively. This is one of the big challenges faced by many ArcGIS users.

Fortunately, there are highly skilled cartographers in the ArcGIS community who compile libraries of symbols, colors, and other related map elements. They share these as ArcGIS styles. In ArcGIS, a style is a library of symbol collections, color schemes, rendering rules, and related map elements that help users build better maps. Each style adds these graphic libraries to ArcMap, ArcGlobe, and ArcScene which you can tap into as a rich source for mapping and visualization.

One of the fundamental capabilities of ArcMap is the ability to share these styles, which can be referenced in ArcMap. This enables all users to create consistent, attractive maps that make an impact. This topic introduces some of the key symbol terms and provides guidance on where to learn more.


Symbols are used to portray points, lines, polygons, and text in maps. This is similar to the mechanisms used in Microsoft Word documents and PowerPoint presentations. Here's a brief overview of symbol types used in maps and other GIS views (e.g., in 3D):

Learn more about working with symbols in ArcGIS.


ArcGIS supports the ability to produce a consistent set of cartography that adheres to an agreed upon standard by a workgroup, organization, or community. One of the ways that this is promoted is through the use of styles.

A style is a collection of symbols, colors, map elements, and other graphical elements that enable a group of users to create and share consistent cartography. A style is a library of all of these elements that can be shared among a group of ArcGIS users.

An example of the pallette of colors that are part of the ESRI style
There are many types of graphics elements that can be shared as part of a style. This example shows some of the colors that are part of the file. Notice all of the other categories of graphic elements.

Styles hold symbols, graphics, and colors that are used in ArcGIS. Each time you search for and pick a symbol for your map layout and map layers in ArcGIS, you are selecting the symbol from a style library.

In ArcMap, ArcGlobe, and ArcScene, you can add styles and reference them in your map documents. This provides a consistent library of symbols to use in your maps, globes, and scenes.

Using styles is one of the ways that organizations and communities share a standard. By sharing a style, all users reference the same symbols, labeling rules, borders, scale bars, and so on. This leads to a shared mapping standard and more consistent representations among a user group.

ESRI provides a series of styles for various user communities. Plus, users can build and share their own styles. In ArcMap, all of the users in a group can add shared styles to the collection of symbols and other elements that provide a library of graphics to add to their maps.

Learn more about using styles in ArcGIS.

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