3 small tools to turbocharge your mapping efficiency in ArcGIS

ArcMap and ArcGIS Pro have lots of functionality that you may not come across. Those built-in functionalities make your life easier, yet you don’t know it and let the button left abandoned in your workspace.

I’ve been playing ArcMap for 4 years and ArcGIS Pro for 1 year, yet I still often find functions I never used before that could help improve my productivity in spatial analysis or map-making. I would like to share 3 built-in abilities that I discovered after playing around the software for a long time. Those features improved my mapping productivity a lot when compared to the stupid-time-consuming detour I took in the old days.

1. Create Bookmarks for the area of interest

Use Bookmarks to create multiple layouts for comparison

There is always some area of interest/study area/focus area for your mapping project. Or, you find a nice angle for your 3D city view that you always want to use it as the viewpoint of your output map. For this purpose, Bookmarks can help you to save your desired location for later uses.

Using Bookmarks

A spatial bookmark identifies a specific geographic location that you want to save and refer to later

Using Bookmarks in ArcGIS in as easy as bookmarking a website in Chrome. You just zoom and drag to your desired view and go to Bookmarks -> New Bookmark. Name the bookmark as your view and it will be stored.

Bookmark is also a great helper when you are comparing several layouts. Would zooming out a bit or staying its original location be better? Save both layouts and you and continuously swapping between two and you will eventually the one you believe is better.

Zoom out or zoom in or nudge to left or nudge to right?

The documentation explains how to use bookmarks in both ArcPro and ArcMap.

2. Fix symbol size with Referenced Scale

Set reference scale will fix the symbol size whether you zoom in and out from the map view

As a newbie of web interactive cartography, I come with tons of problems that have never been experienced when publishing static maps. One thing is fixing the symbol size of point layers. The size of the points in the map view is adjusted automatically when you zoom in and out. However, what if I want to fix its size regardless of how far/close I zoom?

The workflow of ArcMap on rendering symbols is to first check your current map scale, and then render the symbols according to it. My old stupid approach is adjusting the symbol size only after I fixed the layout size of the map, EVERY TIME I change the scale I need to adjust the size again. However, you do not need to change the size every time if you set a reference scale.

Set Reference Scale

Setting a reference scale is useful if you want the detail in your map to look the same as on-screen when printed. Using a reference scale means the map symbols appear on-screen at the size they will appear in the printed copy.

You can’t believe how much time this tool saves

Turns out this little icon is such important in fixing my problem. When you defined a reference scale, as you zoom in and out, your symbols and text will increase or decrease in size accordingly. When no reference scale has been set (the default behaviour), symbol and text sizes remain the same on your map as you zoom in and out.

Illustration of symbol size with and without setting reference scale (Source: https://pro.arcgis.com/en/pro-app/help/mapping/layer-properties/units-and-symbol-size.htm)

You could update the reference scale anytime when you find a better scale size by setting the scale again. Or, to remove it, just choose Clear Reference Scale.

Note: Reference Scale is not available in ArcGIS Online.

3. Show part of the layer with Definition Query

Definition Query will allows you to show some points/lines/polygons within a single layer according to their attributes

Imagine you have a building footprint polygon file storing the shape of the footprint. Now, your map only needs to show the industrial buildings and not those residential ones. What would you do? In the past, I would use Select By Attributes to search for those industrial buildings, and then export them as a new file. However, there is a faster way using Definition Query.

Add Definition Query

Definition queries allow you to define a subset of features to work with in a layer by filtering which features are retrieved from the dataset by the layer.

Definition Query, as what its name tells, allows you to determine which features appear on a map or chart using a SQL query. The queries included in the set indicate what features will be displayed on the map. This is the same as Select by Attributes. This function is useful especially when you only want to work with or draw a subset of features in the dataset.

Here’s a quick example: I have a building point layer with an attribute indicating the number of floors of the building. I want to show towers with 30 storeys or above. In the old days, I would select those buildings and then export the feature class as a new layer.

Select by Attributes, and export the selected points as a new layer

With Definition Query, you just need to go to the Properties window of the feature class and apply the same SQL statement to the box. And now the software will only show buildings higher than 30 floors!

Using Definition Query

Definition Query could save the time software needs to render your large dataset and save spaces for your hard disk to store files just needed once.


There are tons of small tools that you may not discover (even your lecturer won’t — the technologies changes too fast) in ArcGIS. New tools and widgets are released every year. Widgets could improve your productivity, but knowing those widgets exist could be the greatest hurdle to productive mapping. If you wanna improve our mapping efficiency, you have to catch up on the updates as frequent as you can!



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store