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Scale-based symbol classes

Refine the visible scale ranges for symbol classes

When a layer is symbolized with either unique value or graduated colors symbology, you can specify the visible scale range for each symbol class. This is an effective strategy to limit the amount of detailed data at smaller scales without having to make multiple versions of the layer, each with a different definition query. For example, you may have a populated places layer where you want to show major cities at all scales, but include towns only between mid-scale and large-scale ranges, and small villages only at the very largest scales. Not only is it easier to manage and update a map organized this way, the reduction in map information is vitally important if you intend to create vector tiles from your map.

To refine the scale range of symbol classes, complete the following steps:

  1. Highlight a feature layer by clicking its title in the Contents pane.
  2. Under Feature Layer on the Appearance tab in the Drawing group, click Symbology Symbology to open the Symbology pane.
  3. In the Symbology pane, on the Primary symbology tab Primary symbology, ensure the feature layer is drawn with unique values or graduated colors.
  4. On the Scales tab, adjust the scale sliders for each symbol class as needed.

    The stops on the sliders are derived from the map scales. The slider extends across the complete scale range, from an infinitely small scale (zoomed very far out) on the leftmost end of the slider, to a large scale of zero (zoomed very far in) at the rightmost end of the slider. The darker part of the slider shows the scale range of the layer. The features of a symbol class only draw at scales that are within both the scale range of the layer and the scale range of the corresponding symbol class.

As you work with layers set up with scale-based symbol classes, notice that the Contents pane dynamically updates as you zoom in and out of the map, showing only those symbol classes that are defined for the current scale.


While scale-based symbol classes limit the features that are shown at each scale, they don't affect labeling. To ensure that labels match with features at each scale, set up matching label classes for each symbol class with the same scale ranges.

To learn more about setting map scales, see Map scales and scale properties.

To learn more about setting the visible scale range of a layer, see Display layers at certain scales.

To learn about other approaches to limit layer content at smaller scales, see Author a multiscale map.

Show different symbols at different scales

Once scale ranges are applied to symbol classes, you can further refine the appearance of features within those scale ranges by establishing different symbols to different parts of the symbol class scale range. This is another strategy to limit visual dominance of symbols at small scales, both by avoiding symbol overlap and by reducing excessive visual weight. A common approach is to use a complex symbol at large scales and a simple, but related symbol at small scales. For example, you can symbolize road features as light orange with a thin, gray casing at larger scales, but just as a single solid gray line at smaller scales. In this example, these lines would be defined as two separate symbols for the same symbol class. The gray color ties the symbols together so it is clear they are referencing the same features, but the uncased solid lines at smaller scales are visually lighter and take up less map space.

To add additional symbols to a symbol class, you subdivide the visible scale range into parts by adding interim scale stops to the scale range slider for the symbol class. Drag the interim stops to a new scale location, or click them to open a pop-up to choose a different map scale. The scale stops are determined by the map scales defined in the map. You work only with the stops on the main slider. The subsliders below the main slider are there to just give a visual understanding of the scale ranges of each symbol.

To show different symbols at different scales, complete the following steps:

  1. In the Symbology pane, for a feature layer drawn with unique values, on the Primary symbology tab Primary symbology, highlight the symbol class to be subdivided.
  2. On the Scales tab, highlight a symbol class and click the Add Alternate Symbol button Add Alternate Symbol.

    The scale range for the symbol class is divided at a map scale, and subscale ranges are shown below.

  3. Adjust the scale stop on the main slider to set the scale at which the symbol class changes from one symbol to the other.
    The subscale ranges adjust accordingly.

When subscale ranges are created, identical symbols are applied to all of them. Click these symbols to modify them as necessary in the Format Symbol pane. There is no limit to how many symbols are assigned to a single symbol class, but be aware that too much complexity may be difficult to manage. If you need to define more than two or three symbols for a single symbol class, you may want to reconsider how your data is classified. The Contents pane, and any legends generated for a layer with symbol classes with multiple symbols, show only the symbol that is visible for the current display scale.

Control the display at scale boundaries

When setting scale ranges, it is important to understand what happens at the boundaries of those scale ranges. You want to avoid two versions of a feature drawing simultaneously at scale boundaries, but also avoid a small gap where neither version of the feature draws. There is a map property that manages this case. It applies anywhere in the map where scale ranges are specified.

  1. In the Contents pane, right-click a map and click Properties to open the Map Properties dialog box.
  2. On the General tab, ensure that Draw up to and including the maximum scale in scale ranges is unchecked.

    It is unchecked by default on new maps but checked on in map documents that were imported from ArcMap.

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