Developing Custom ArcMap Symbology Using Group Layers and Style Files

Geoffrey Baldwin, Mark Dodich

Abstract: A very powerful feature of ArcMap is the ability to maintain cartographic standards through the development of custom symbology. The advent of ArcGIS 8.x brings new capabilities to map production by introducing features that every user needs to become familiar with: Group Layers and Style Files. This paper discusses how group layer files are utilized to create custom map symbology so that maps of any scale are automatically rendered with the appropriate feature symbology. This paper also addresses how style files are created and implemented. AAA’s new TourBook ® map production methodology will be described to illustrate how these techniques have been successfully implemented.


AAA (the American Automobile Association) has offered high-quality travel-related services, road safety education, financial services, and a variety of products to the traveling public for more than one hundred years. Today AAA serves its more than forty-five million members in 1,123 offices throughout the US and Canada. At the core of AAA’s travel-related services are a variety of map publications ranging in scale from highly detailed city maps to regional maps used for travel planning. In addition, AAA produces 24 TourBook ® guides that contain more than 600 maps providing detailed information on attractions, lodgings and restaurants throughout North America. For the 2001 edition, AAA published more than 28 million TourBook ® guides.

The focus of this paper describes the migration of our TourBook ® maps into the GIS. It also addresses, more specifically, how AAA has developed efficient cartographic production methods and implemented map series symbology using ArcGIS 8.x.

AAA’s GIS database and the transition to ArcGIS

AAA’s GIS was initially developed on the Unix ArcInfo 7.x platform using SDE for Informix. The goal was to build an intelligent, enterprise-wide GIS system using a seamless nationwide master database. This database would support both paper-based map production and electronic travel related products.

Currently, AAA manages its GIS master database with Esri’s ArcSDE 8.x for Oracle. In addition to the master database, individual cartographic "product layers" are also stored in ArcSDE. With ArcSDE, we can either cascade real world changes from the master database directly to any product layer, or make product only cartographic changes to fit specific customer requests. Although the UNIX ArcInfo 7.x platform has allowed us to migrate our City, Vicinity and State map product lines successfully to a GIS environment, AAA is continually looking at how it uses GIS to improve efficiency in both database development and map production.

When Esri first developed ArcGIS technology AAA welcomed the opportunity to be a beta site for Esri. The goal was to investigate the new applications and to find out how they could enhance AAA’s map production process. Some of our early efforts were not very successful as the software was in the early stages of development. The 8.1 release of ArcGIS allowed AAA to move forward with testing the migration of the TourBook ® map production system to that platform. The advantages of this approach were:

  • The new desktop tools had out-of-the-box functionality requiring little customization for map production
  • ArcGIS required less training because of the users familiarity with Microsoft Windows applications
  • Performance issues were minimized with the smaller data sets used in TourBook ® maps
  • Testing the ArcGIS environment provided a good comparison with our sheet map production efforts using UNIX ArcInfo 7.x

  • TourBook ® map production with ArcGIS

    One major issue we had to address was generalization, or the need to extract different map features from the master database for TourBook ® maps at various scales. We decided to modify the AML extraction code that was already in place for sheet map products. While we recognized ArcMap's ability to constrain feature visibility through the use of SQL expressions, the business decision was made to use a proven and established method for the initial data extraction. For more information on AAA’s generalization techniques, please refer to the reference section of this paper.

    As an overview, here are the steps that were required to develop the TourBook ® map production system on ArcGIS 8.x:

  • Evaluate map specification requirements
  • Create feature extraction query logic for each map type and scale
  • Build group layer files to store feature symbology for each pre-determined scale group
  • Create a style file to store our standard map annotation styles
  • Train staff using desktop ArcGIS, specifically ArcMap edit tools
  • Create TourBook ® prototype maps and develop production procedures
  • Test the ArcMap output to ensure it meets printing standards

  • Group Layers and TourBook ® Map Specifications

    In ArcGIS, geographic information is displayed in ArcMap as layers. Each layer represents a category of features such as highways, drainage or points of interest and includes the symbology, display, labeling and query information. Group layers are a combination of layers that are represented as a single entry in the table of contents in ArcMap.

    Before the process of building group layers can begin, map specifications have to be carefully developed. One of the first tasks in creating TourBook ® map specifications is to determine the requirements by closely evaluating the different types of maps. Below is a set of diagrams which represent a small sample of the different maps that are presented in the AAA TourBook ®

    Figure 1.1 - 1.6: Examples of TourBook ® maps


    Figure 1.1: Boston - Freedom Trail Walking Tour

    This large-scale map contains AAA approved points of interest based on a specific route described in the TourBook ® guide text.


    Figure 1.2: Salem Attraction Map

    This attraction map features AAA approved points of interest in relation to roads, parks, airports and other landmarks.


    Figure 1.3: Gettysburg National Military Park Map

    This map shows points of interest and natural or historic features in and around the national park. This map also contains a suggested driving tour indicated by a yellow highlight.

    Figure 1.4: Downtown Pittsburgh Spotting Map

    This Spotting map shows AAA approved lodgings and restaurants in relation to roads and other landmark features.


    Figure 1.5: New Jersey Orientation Map

    This Orientation map features towns that have AAA approved points of interest. Recreation areas are also included and referenced in a detailed chart that describes available activities at each site.


    Figure 1.6: Maine-New Hampshire and Vermont Driving Distance Map

    This Driving Distance map contains trip-distance and driving-time information for travel planning.

    These diagrams demonstrate the variety of features that need to be considered for each map type. Large-scale maps such as the Boston-Freedom Trail Walking Tour map in Figure 1.1 and the Downtown Pittsburgh Spotting map in figure 1.4 feature detailed building footprints and cased roads. Small-scale maps such as the New Jersey Orientation map in Figure 1.5 feature a highly generalized road network. For the Driving Distance Map in figure 1.6, the straight lines between towns clearly indicate that the purpose of the map focuses on trip planning.

    Scale Ranges

    The process of evaluating scale ranges is not only a key factor in how specifications are built, but also provides a solid foundation for creating extraction logic. Figure 2 demonstrates the relationship of the TourBook ® map types described in figures 1.1-1.6 to the 14 different scale ranges that we developed for the AAA GIS. The scales are indicated by numbers ranging from the largest scale (1) to the smallest scale (14). For example, scale level 1 represents any map with a scale greater than 1:15,000; scale level 4 is any map between 1: 50,000 and 1:125,000, and scale level 14 is any map with a scale smaller than 1:7,600,000.

    Figure 2: TourBook ® maps and scale ranges

    Understanding the relationship between map type and scale is the most important factor in building map specifications and eventually determining how the Group Layers in ArcMap are organized. While TourBook ® maps vary greatly in content, we determined that the best approach was to evaluate our specifications according to scale. Road classification is an excellent example of this concept.

    In the AAA GIS, roads are classified based on the attribute "FEAT_CODE". The FEAT_CODE is both a physical and functional characteristic of a road feature. Figure 3 below contains FEAT_CODES 33-39, which are classified as paved undivided roads. FEAT_CODES 33-35 generally have primary arterial functionality and represent roads that connect cities, or roads that allow for a high volume of traffic. FEAT_CODES 36-39 generally have secondary arterial functionality and most likely would be roads that connect between neighborhoods, allowing for moderate volumes of traffic.

    As you can see in Figure 3, as the map scale gets smaller, the criteria for a road to reach secondary or primary level becomes more stringent. Figure 3: Road Classification system cross-section - FEAT_CODES 33-39

    Scale Level 1,2

    For the largest scale maps, all roads including undivided roads are represented as double lined or cased road features.

    Scale Level 3,4

    For large-scale maps undivided roads are represented with single line symbology. There is no drop in functionality as these roads are very important at these scales.

    Scale Level 5,6

    At the medium scale level there is less primary functionality as these roads have less importance. Some of the roads will get filtered during automated extraction at these scales.

    Scale Level 7-13

    At the smallest scales these roads have significantly less importance. Many, if not all of the roads will get filtered at these scales.

    After a thorough review of our existing TourBook ® map specifications, we found that many area, line and point features such as parks, lakes, railroads and points of interest had the same symbology despite great differences in scale. However, when we considered road symbology, it became clear that the importance of the feature (Red for primary, black for secondary, gray for local) was dependent on the scale of the map and, therefore, would determine how many group layer files we had to build.

    In the section titled Creating Symbology and Applying Group Layers, there will be more detail of how group layers store display properties and how they can be effectively utilized in ArcMap for production cartography.

    Style Files and TourBook ® Map Specifications

    In ArcMap, specific information about the properties and characteristics of text, symbols, and other map elements can be stored in a Style file. In the TourBook ® production environment we have successfully used a customized style to communicate to production staff which graphic elements are available and how they should be applied.

    By using the Style Manager in ArcMap, the AAA TourBook ® style file was created containing all of the markers, lines, fills and text that are applied as graphics and/or annotations on our TourBook ® maps. Through the use of the Style Manager dialog box, we found that symbols and map elements were easily created and modified. All of this work was done without any customization to ArcMap, and unlike the marker edit commands in ArcInfo 7.x, was very simple to put in place and update.

    Figure 4: Examples of the symbols created for AAA TourBook ® maps

    TourBook ® Style Files


    The symbols in this marker style are not master database features and are only applied graphically as needed to the map document or annotation layer.


    Leader lines are added to the map document for use with text or symbols as needed. A spec sheet provides instructions for the proper application.

    Highway Shields

    By using this custom style the user selects the appropriate shield and populates the number. There is also a smaller shield available as an alternative.

    The greatest difficulty in creating the AAA TourBook ® Style file was the inadequate quality of the symbols that were imported. There was some initial success importing markers from our UNIX ArcInfo 7.x symbolsets; however, the quality was not acceptable (pixilated, fuzzy images). A similar experience occurred when testing symbology from a Microstation cell library and Adobe Illustrator software. While these efforts have been largely unsuccessful, Esri continues to improve how symbols can be converted for use in the ArcGIS environment.

    Included with the latest delivery of ArcGIS 8.2 is an ArcInfo 7.x symbol conversion utility. While we have not had time to fully test the program, after some initial efforts we found some limitations. Esri states in the on-line documentation "The program is not intended for use with symbolsets that utilize patterns from IGL, Intellifont or Postscript fonts". Since all of our UNIX ArcInfo 7.x markersets are IGL and all of our text fonts were developed using Intellifont, it appears that this symbol conversion program will not meet most of our needs. Because there are few options in ArcInfo 7.x, most Esri customers using either IGL for markersets or Intellifont to develop text fonts will discover the same limitation. For more information on this topic, see the Reference section at the end of this paper.

    Fontographer: Third-party font-creation software

    As Esri suggests in the ArcGIS documentation, precise TrueType fonts can be created using third-party font-creation software. After an evaluation of different software we decided that Macromedia’s Fontographer best fit our needs. The software allows the user to easily create fonts containing characters that can be used in an ArcGIS group layer or style file. In addition, we found that many of our pre-existing ArcInfo 7.x symbols could be easily recreated by bringing them into Fontographer as a backdrop, and then re-digitizing them as new font characters.

    Figure 5 is an example of the process used to import a U.S. highway shield from a UNIX ArcInfo 7.x markerset and recreate it as a TrueType character for use within a style file.

    Figure 5: Process of creating TrueType characters in Fontographer

    Step 1

    UNIX ArcInfo 7.x marker symbol is captured in a screen copy

    Step 2

    The screen copy is brought into Fontographer as a background image.

    Step 3

    The shape is digitized using the precise set of tools available in Fontographer.

    Although Highway shields are readily available in the Esri symbol set, from a cartographic perspective we wanted to retain the "look and feel" that our members are accustomed to. Figure 6 demonstrates two examples of the difference between default Esri symbology and what was built for the AAA TourBook ® production system using Fontographer:

    Figure 6: Comparison of Esri symbology to custom symbology created using Fontographer

    Esri Symbology

    The heavy black line is inconsistent with how Federal Interstate shields are symbolized. This generic shield is used for one, two and three digit shields.

    AAA Custom Symbology

    This symbol matches the Federal standard for Interstate shields in both shape and color. The symbol is enlarged to accommodate three digits.

    Esri Symbology

    This generic U.S. Highway shield is the same width for one, two and three digit shields.

    AAA Custom Symbology

    By customizing the size, the two-digit U.S. Highway shield is more aesthetically pleasing and takes up less space in crowded map areas.

    Creating Symbology and Applying Group Layers

    There are many ways to create custom symbology in ArcMap. One effective method is to bring sample data layers into ArcMap so that new symbology can be evaluated at the appropriate scale. To begin, a directory is added in ArcCatalog and all the data layers that require custom symbology are copied into the directory. In this example a road layer from the sample data will be added in ArcMap. The road layer initially draws using default ArcMap single line symbology at a specified scale. By opening up the properties of the road layer, the draw symbology can be changed from the default to unique symbols based on the values found in a column of the attribute table. In this case, the AAA TourBook ® road layer will be drawn based on the FEAT_CODE attribute.

    Figure 7: Using the Layer Properties dialog box to set draw symbology to an attribute

    By selecting each symbol individually, the properties can be customized. As an example, by double-clicking on the light green line next to FEAT_CODE 33 above, the Symbol Selector dialog box opens. By clicking on the Properties within the Symbol Selector box, the Symbol Property Editor is opened, and the symbol is ready to be edited. The symbol that we will create using FEAT_CODE 33 is a primary divided road that is represented as two red casings with a white fill in the center. Figure 8.1- 8.3 demonstrate the steps that are required to create this symbol.

    Figure 8.1: The initial steps involved to create custom symbology

    Step 1: The symbol property edit box is opened. The type of feature is already set as a Cartographic Line Symbol. ArcMap assigns the line a default color and width. By changing these settings the draw symbology can be customized.

    Step 2: The color is easily changed to the desired specifications.

    Step 3: In this example the width is set to inches. The Line Caps and Line Joins are set as shown above. We found this to be the optimal setting for all line symbols.

    Figure 8.2: Steps required to add a second line symbol

    Step 4: A line is added and elevated so that it draws on top of the red symbol already created. The color and width are based on default settings.


    Step 5: The color is changed so that it prints with a white fill.

    Step 6: The width is set smaller than the red line symbol, creating a thin red lined casing with a specific width on either side.

    Figure 8.3: Finishing the symbology and creating a group layer

    Step 7: The symbology is complete. Once this process is finished for all of the different types of road features, the initial group layer is ready to be created.

    Step 8: In the ArcMap table of contents, right click on Layers, and select "New Group Layer". Drag the road layer into the new group layer. Right click on the New Group Layer and save the group layer file.

    The group layer file that is generated as a result of Step 8 is the first step in creating the new group layer. The procedure is very similar for area fills, except that the property type we typically use is the "Simple Fill Symbol". Regarding marker symbols, we found that it is advantageous to build a TrueType font file using third party font creation software as described in the previous section, then use the "Character Marker Symbol" option in ArcMap.

    All map layers should have be added to the group layer and saved to the group layer file. After all the layers have been customized, the final step is to delete or move the sample data to a different directory. By doing this, the link is broken between the group layer files created in step 8 and the data. This is a necessary step because the new group layer file must not be associated to any single data set before it is brought into ArcMap for the creation of a new map.

    Applying Group Layers

    In the ArcGIS help dialog, Esri provides an example of why group layers are helpful in ArcMap: Suppose you have two layers on a map representing railroads and highways. You might choose to group these layers together and name the resulting layer "transportation networks". We chose to think about group layers differently as we learned more about how they could be applied.  It was envisioned that every TourBook ® ® group layer would contain all the individual layers necessary to create a complete map. The advantage in using this method is that up-to-date feature symbology can easily be applied to a map in the form of a single, new group layer.

    Based on some of the principles that were established in the Group Layers and TourBook ® Map Specifications section, the group layers were created for the TourBook ® production system based on scale. Here are the five unique group layers that we developed to symbolize the TourBook ® data:

  • Final_1-2.lyr - Group Layer for maps with a scale larger than 1:25,000

  • Group layer for maps with a scale between 1:25,000 and 1:125,000

  • Final_5-6.lyr - Group layer for maps with a scale between 1:125,000 and 1:300,000

  • Final_7+.lyr - Group layer for maps with a scale above 1:300,000

  • To apply a group layer in ArcMap, the layer file is added using the same procedure as any other data set. In this example we are going to symbolize TourBook ® data for the Philadelphia downtown map. Since the map scale is greater than 1:25,000, we chose to bring in the Final_1-2 layer:

    Figure 9.1: Adding the group layer to the blank map document in ArcMap

    Step 1: Starting with a blank map document, hit the add data button and find the directory where the group layer is stored (see step 8 in Figure #8).The links to the data will be broken, and a spatial reference message will appear. This is expected because in the next step we will be associating this group layer to a specific data set. Click OK and continue.

    Figure 9.2: Linking the Group layer to specific map layers

    Step 2: Select any of the layers in the table of contents and click on the red exclamation point to set the data source path to the location of the map data. In this case we found the 2180 directory where the Philadelphia downtown map data is stored. The next step is to select the corresponding data layer, in this example tnavl.shp. Once the Add button is selected all of the layers in the group will be automatically linked, provided that the name of the data layers match those in the group layer. If the names are different, they will have to be resolved individually to create a link between the individual layers and the data.

    Figure 9.3: Drawing the map data according to standards set by group layer properties

    Step 3: Right click on any of the layers and select Zoom to Layer. The data will draw according to the specifications contained in the group layer (in this example we zoomed in further in order to clearly display the symbology). At this point the .mxd can be saved (generally in the directory where the data is stored), and the editing process can begin.

    This simple explanation of how to apply group layers in ArcMap is only one example of how powerful the group layer concept is. Not only can a group layer provide the draw symbology, it can also store the appropriate draw order and all of the labeling properties for each layer. In addition, layers also have the ability to display a subset of features in a layer using a definition query. These properties can be stored in the group layer file as well. All of these very powerful tools are described in Figures 10.1-10.6:

    Figure 10.1 : How ArcMap utilizes the table of contents to determine draw order

    Figure 10.2 : A Subset of features requiring a draw order that is on top of the road network

    ArcMap draws each layer based on the order in the table of contents, drawing the bottom layer first. The two layers that are highlighted each point to the same data source. They both contain different sets of features that require two different draw orders. The features contained in this layer will be drawn after the two road layers (TAAAL, TNAVL), as these symbols need to print on top of road features.

    Figure 10.3 A different set of features requiring a draw order that is below the road network

    Figure 10.4 Creating a definition query that defines which features belong in the subset

    The features contained in this layer will be drawn before the two road layers (TAAAL, TNAVL) as these line shades need to print beneath the road features. As you can also see, features within a layer are also drawn to our pre-defined order, from bottom to top. By opening up the layer properties dialog box, a definition query can be stored using a SQL statement to create a layer that is a subset of the source data. In this example, Driving Tours will be selected for this layer as defined by the FEAT_TYPES contained in the definition query.

    Figure 10.5 How label properties can be defined and stored in a group layer

    Figure 10.6 Creating a query that defines the label properties for a subset of features

    Another property the group layer can store is the label definitions. In this example, primary (red) road features are set to create red text labels. The same method can be used for secondary (black) road features, as they will be set to create black text labels. In this example, an SQL query is created to generate red text for red road features. By applying this to the group layer, the appropriate label color, style and placement options are defined without input from the user.


    This paper described how AAA’s TourBook ® maps have been successfully produced using ArcGIS technology. More specifically it addressed how group layers files are utilized to automatically render the map features with their corresponding symbology. The paper also described how to create and utilize a style file to serve as a repository for annotation and symbol styles.

    The test involving the migration of TourBook ® maps into the ArcGIS platform has proven very successful. Although AAA invested a great deal of time in setting up the group layers and style files, the effort is paying off as we have gained great efficiencies in map production. TourBook ® production continues to move forward with ArcGIS 8.2 as almost half of the existing 600 TourBook ® maps will be migrated into the ArcGIS environment this year.

    There are still, however, many obstacles to overcome. For example, there are some processes that still rely on the Unix ArcInfo 7.x system (i.e., pre-selection of features). Furthermore, some of ArcMap’s native functionality is highly interactive. There are efforts currently underway at AAA to further enhance the TourBook ® production system. The first of these efforts is to automate interactive procedures through ArcObjects and Visual Basic. The second effort is to migrate to an enterprise geodatabase data model. This will allow for the deployment of a customized suite of tools that will ensure the TourBook ® production process is handled inside the ArcGIS environment, from the initial data extraction to the final output.

    Through the knowledge gained by the development of an ArcGIS-based TourBook ® production system, the enormous potential of the software has been realized. AAA hopes to continue to work closely with Esri to help improve ArcGIS’ cartographic application. The long-term goal is to eventually migrate the production of all AAA map products to the ArcGIS platform.


    For more information on how AAA approaches generalization, refer to the white paper that was presented during the 2001 Esri conference by Miguel Garriga titled "Generalization of Multiple Scale Maps from a Single Master Database".

    For information concerning the conversion of ArcInfo 7.x symbolsets into ArcGIS using the ArcInfo 7.x Symbol converter, here is the link to the ArcObjects Online page: 7x symbol conversion/symbolconverter.htm


    The authors would like to thank AAA associates Paulo Duarte and Miguel Garriga for the fundamental support they provided in helping us with this paper.

    Authors’ Information

    Geoffrey Baldwin
    Cartographer IV
    AAA GIS/Cartography Department
    1000 AAA Drive, Heathrow, FL 32746

    Mark Dodich
    Cartographer IV
    AAA GIS/Cartography Department
    1000 AAA Drive, Heathrow, FL 32746