Put your best thumbnail forward

First impressions are important—whether it’s during a job interview, a first meeting with a prospective client, or when you visit a company website. While you shouldn’t necessarily judge a book by its cover, we’re visually oriented and what we see affects our perception of not only what interests us, but also forms an impression of what’s beyond the visual. Which leads to the question: Why have thumbnails like these as the first impression of your map?

The above thumbnails are from publicly shared maps, and while the maps behind them might be finely crafted examples of online mapping excellence, the first impression sets the expectation otherwise.

In contrast, the thumbnails below show professionalism, and indicate that the maps they represent are authoritative, curated, and of high quality.

Going beyond a mediocre thumbnail

Many of the maps we create are on behalf of an organization, a business, a non-profit, an educational institution, or other kind of organization. Even if not representing an organization, the work you do represents yourself professionally, or reflects upon your GIS department, so first impressions matter. This is especially true for top-tier content that you want to share with other departments, a public audience, or with peer organizations. They will judge the book by the cover.

It’s easy to change your thumbnail and set an impression of quality rather than mediocrity.  In this example we’ve authored a map of places to go in San Diego. The default thumbnail is adequate, but since we want to share this map publicly we can do better.

First, create a better thumbnail. You can zoom and capture a part of the map, or can adopt one of the other design options to consider, discussed later. The thumbnail should be 600 x 400 px for best results, and must be a PNG, GIF, or JPEG. The thumbnail can be made with any screen capture or graphics program.

To change the thumbnail, open the item pages Overview tab and click Edit Thumbnail:

In Upload Thumbnail, you can drag and drop a new thumbnail or click Choose File to browse to its location.

Once chosen, you can adjust the zoom to fit and place the image in the frame. When finished, click OK to save your changes.

Here’s our saved item. We chose a photo with a marker symbol to create a thumbnail with more appeal, that represented “places to go.”

Style and design considerations

Of the two above—the original and the new thumbnail—which presents the better impression of the content behind it? Of course there are many different aesthetic and design considerations, and opportunities for creativity, so take a look at some of the ones already published and see which you find appealing – those are the examples you should emulate. Here are some interesting examples that provide a judge-the-book-by-the-cover approach to thumbnails.

Geographic context
Each of these thumbnails provides an obvious visual reference to the geographic context of the map, that helps the user anticipate what they will see. From left to right, the first is a map of Utah, the second covers world content, and the third is a map of Paris.

Content hints
Sometimes thumbnails provide a visual cue to the content source we find within them. Below is a map containing temporal data, a CSV file, and a KML (of mining data).

Apps, tools, and capabilities
The thumbnail might also provide an indication of the functionality or tools within an application. The first can be recognized as a Story Map Tour, the second an app that features charts, and the third an app that provides tools for deer management.

Photo or graphic cues
Photos or graphics can provide obvious clues to the content. From left to right: weather or hurricanes, fish habitat or fishing, and shorebirds.

Graphic hints
Thumbnails don’t have to be photo-realistic or include a map, artistic graphics can also deliver context. From left to right: a map about public art in Pasadena, a birding festival, and a concert event.

Organization branding
An interesting and useful thumbnail concept is branding, and is one that I highly recommend for top-tier authoritative content shared by an organization. Each map below employs a visual brand (the organization logo) which provides an indication of the authoritative source for the map.

On the left the thumbnail uses a standard logo from Iowa DOT, along with an indicator of the item type (a map) and a representation of the data in the map. The middle thumbnail clearly indicates the item is about ducks, while the latter is a nicely branded example from Kansas DOT. Do you prefer to see geographic context along with the thumbnail, or is a visual and logo sufficient?

Tips and Recommendations

When creating custom thumbnails, I recommend using a template created in Photoshop (or similar) containing your graphic elements. When you create a new thumbnail, you can toggle your graphic elements as desired, after capturing the background of the thumbnail.

PNG generally provides the best results. I create templates using the exact 4:3 ratio of 600 x 399 px, or use the largest size currently used in the ArcGIS online ecosystem which is 286 x 190 px—the standard size used in the Story Maps and Living Atlas galleries.


Each of these approaches provides some food for thought when it comes to adding custom thumbnails to your ArcGIS Online items. It’s a small, but yet important, detail that is often overlooked. It only takes a few minutes to come up with a thumbnail that trumps the default, and the reflection on you and your organization is likely worth the additional effort. So put your best thumbnail forward!

This post was originally published on April 15, 2011, and has been updated.

This entry was posted in ArcGIS Enterprise, ArcGIS Online and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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  1. Pingback: Put your best thumbnail forward (redux) | ArcGIS Resource Center

  2. pmckinneyccpa says:

    What I like about the posts dealing with thumbnails and customization of the AGOL Organizational homepage is that it is reminding the geospatial community of the design component of our profession.

    Whether we are creating a map for print, or a web map, we are participating in graphic design. We are telling stories about the human experience. We should strive to tell great stories that engage people. And we can do that through a great visual experience.

  3. Jaroo says:

    Can’t agree with you more! We recognized the importance of thumbnails a while back from a ppt we found in Esri’s local government section and have customized it and expanded it to include theme colors that relate to our OpenData portal categories. Also seeing what a great job the City of Kingston, Ontario did with theirs gave us some insight on what could be done. See our “Getting Started: What’s in a thumbnail?” section to see the anatomy of the thumbnail I ended up with https://medium.com/@cgs.paul.giroux/understanding-mapit-greater-sudbury-faeb667b5b8b#.z7feb92le .

    It took me quite a while to find something that works for both the portal and for the OpenData site and works well with Esri’s native apps (Explorer, etc.). For internal users (employees), we’ve adopted a different look and feel that works best in apps like collector, is easier to differentiate between the map vs. Web App Builder data reviewer/editor app and includes text on layer thumbnails like “Don’t delete this item!” :-)

  4. adelebz says:

    Thanks so much for sharing. I shared this info in the MOOC on DIY Geo Apps to provide further info on a tip on how to add thumbnails to the Item Details page! Very nice work!

  5. randomblink says:

    Curious if there is any documentation on the App Thumbnails in WAB? I know that as things stand currently for our office, that Thumbnail is only seen by myself, as the lone web app builder. However, we are moving to Portal Soon and I believe that creating a template that I can reuse would be most helpful.

    • Bern Szukalski says:

      A WAB app item, like any other item, can be viewed by anyone with permissions to see it. So whatever thumbnail you add to your WAB item will be what they see – it doesn’t matter if you are implementing your portal on-prem or in the cloud. The solutions kits include PowerPoint templates for creating thumbnails. I use Photoshop, but there are many alternatives.

  6. johnmdye says:

    you know what would be great? If we could swap out that god awful ugly blue banner with the terrible antialiasing.

  7. lawilliams says:

    Great article. Branding and UX or User Experience is so important for online content. informing the user what they are downloading with icons is very useful when sorting through online resources. I think having a standard for look and feel in the GIS industry is wise and adds a professional aesthetic.

    If you can’t afford Photoshop or Illustrator you can use GIMP https://www.gimp.org/ and INKSCAPE. https://inkscape.org/en/ which are comparable alternatives to premium Adobe products. :)