Skip to Main Content

ArcMap Desktop Introduction: Glossary & Tools

Screen layout

ArcGIS ToolsTools display around the perimeter of the ArcGIS window or in a free-floating box.

When a tool icon is clicked, the pointer becomes that tool. The pointer will then perform that tool's operation when you click a location on a map.

Selection and resizing tools might open as a free-floating box, but you can drag and anchor it in the window above the map.

Drawing and labeling tools are available when you turn on the Drawing toolbar

drawing and labeling tools

Pointing finger Remember that when you click on the map the pointer will continue to perform the selected tool's function until you click another tool icon.

Concepts & terminology

Essential ArcMap Vocabulary (online, from ESRI)

Layer: The ArcView 8+ term for a layer of information on a map (e.g., census tract polygons). These were called "themes" in ArcView 3.x.  Layers are registered or georeferenced, meaning the program knows their location in physical space and can thus overlay them correctly to make a map.

Features: The individual objects in a layer, either points, lines, or polygons as described above. Individual features can be selected to use in data analysis and processing (e.g., combining, saving as a new layer).

Data Frame: A window on the monitor that consists of a map, made up of one or more layers.  One frame can be shown at a time in a data view. Multiple frames can be shown at once in a layout view.  All the layers in a data frame will need to use the same projection and datum.

Element or Annotation: A label, title, or other such graphic added to the data frame (e.g., the labels to each feature).  Individual elements can be selected and moved, deleted, resized, etc.

Data View:  The view where you build your map and analyze data.  If your project requires several maps, you can have multiple data frames, but only one visible ("active") at a time in the data view.

Layout View:  A view where you can better organize your map elements to look nice for printed output or for exporting as a graphic file. You can display multiple data frames in the layout view, along with other elements such as a legend, north arrow, scale, title, etc.

Table of Contents:  This is the legend that appears to the left of the map. Lists the layers open in that view and allows you to alter the look of the map by turning themes on and off and by changing their appearance.  The "display" tab shows the layers that are available for display on your map.  The "source" tab indicates where these layers are located on your hard drive, on a remote server, on a CD, etc.

Layer On/Off  If the box to the left of the layer's name is checked, the layer is turned on and displays in the data frame (i.e., on the map).

Map Document: A file representing a map workspace created in ArcMap. Sort of a bookmark file, which tells the programs which layers are being used for the particular map and how they're being symbolized.  All the files referred to that are being used to build the layers and store the data are required to be accessible..  This needs to be frequently saved (CTRL-S) to the user's personal directory.  Has .mxd filename extension.