Compute optimal positions for placing labels inside polygons, and optionally plot the labels. Various algorithms for finding the ‘optimal’ label positions are supported.

polygonsLabel(pols, labels = NULL, method = c("maxdist",
              "buffer", "centroid", "random", "inpolygon")[1],
              gridpoints = 60, polypart = c("all", "largest")[1],
              cex = 1, doPlot = TRUE, ...)



Object of class, or deriving from, SpatialPolygons.


Character vector of labels. Will be recycled to have the same number of elements as the number of polygons in pols. If labels is NULL or empty, the label box is taken as a square with sides equal to the current line height (see the cex argument).


The method(s) to use when finding label positions. Will be recycled. Valid methods are maxdist (currently the default), buffer, centroid, random and inpolygon.


Number of grid points to use for the initial grid search in the maxdist method.


Should all (default) or only the largest polygon part of each polygon in pols be used for the calculations? Will be recycled. Setting this to largest is very useful when labelling detailed coastlines of a country, consisting of a large polygon (where the label should be placed) and very many tiny islands, as it will greatly speed up the search for an optimal label position. But do note that this also removes any holes (e.g., lakes) before calculating the label position, so the labels are no longer guaranteed not to overlap a hole.


Magnification factor for text labels. Is used both when plotting the labels and when calculating the label positions.


Plot the labels on the current graphics device. Calls the text function internally.


Further arguments to be passed to text (e.g., col).


There are no perfect definitions of ‘optimal’ label positions, but any such position should at least satisfy a few requirements: The label should be positioned wholly inside the polygon. It should also be far from any polygon edges. And, though more difficult to quantify, it should be positioned in the visual centre (or bulk) of the polygon. The algorithms implemented here seems to generally do a very good job of finding optimal (or at least ‘good’) label positions.

The maxdist method is currently the default, and tries to find the label position with a maximal distance from the polygon edges. More precisely, it finds a position where the minimal distance of any point on the (rectangular) label box to the polygon boundary is maximised. It does this by first trying a grid search, using gridpoints regular grid points on the polygon, and then doing local optimisation on the best grid point. The default grid is quite coarse, but usually gives good results in a short amount of time. But for very complicated (and narrow) polygons, it may help increasing gridpoints. Note that while this method gives good results for most natural polygons, e.g., country outlines, the theoretical optimal position is not necessarily unique, and this is sometimes seen when applying the method to regular polygons, like rectangles (see example below), where the resulting position may differ much from what one would judge to be the visual centre of the polygon.

The buffer method works by shrinking the polygon (using negative buffering) until the convex hull of the shrunken polygon can fit wholly inside the original polygon. The label position is then taken as the centroid of the shrunken polygon. This method usually gives excellent results, is surprisingly fast, and seems to capture the ‘visual centre’ idea of an optimal label position well. However, it does not guarantee that the label can fit wholly inside the polygon. (However, if it does not fit, there are usually no other better position either.)

The centroid method simply returns the centroid of each polygon. Note that although this is the geometrical/mathematical centre of the polygon, it may actually be positioned outside the polygon. For regular polygons (rectangles, hexagons), it gives perfect results. Internally, this method uses the coordinates function. There are three reasons this method is supported: To make it easy to find the centroid of the largest polygon part of a polygon (using the polypart argument), to make it easy to use the centroid algorithm along with other algorithms (using the vector nature of the method argument), and for completeness.

The random method returns a random position guaranteed to be inside the polygon. This will rarely be an optimal label position!

The inpolygon method finds an arbitrary position in the polygon. This position is usually quite similar to the centroid, but is guaranteed the be inside the polygon. Internally, the method uses the gPointOnSurface function.


Note that both the labels, method and polypart arguments are vectors, so it’s possible to use different options for each polygon in the pols object.


A two-colum matrix is returned, with each row containing the horizontal and vertical coordinates for the corresponding polygon. If doPlot is TRUE

(the default), the labels are also plotted on the current graphics device, with the given value of cex

(font size scaling).


Karl Ove Hufthammer,

See also


The buffer method was inspired by (but is slightly different from) the algorithm described in the paper Using Shape Analyses for Placement of Polygon Labels by Hoseok Kang and Shoreh Elhami, available at .


# Simple example with a single polygon
x = c(0, 1.8, 1.8, 1, 1, 3, 3, 2.2, 2.2, 4,
      4, 6, 6, 14, 14, 6, 6,  4, 4, 0, 0)
y = c(0, 0, -2, -2, -10, -10, -2, -2, 0, 0,
      1.8, 1.8, 1, 1, 3, 3, 2.2, 2.2, 4, 4, 0)
xy = data.frame(x,y)
xy.sp = SpatialPolygons(list(Polygons(list(Polygon(xy)), ID = "test")))
plot(xy.sp, col = "khaki")
polygonsLabel(xy.sp, "Hi!")

#>          [,1]     [,2]
#> [1,] 2.001006 1.962585

# Example with multiple polygons, text labels and colours
x1 = c(0, 4, 4, 0, 0)
y1 = c(0, 0, 4, 4, 0)
x2 = c(1, 1, 3, 3, 1)
y2 = c(-2, -10, -10, -2, -2)
x3 = c(6, 14, 14, 6, 6)
y3 = c(1, 1, 3, 3, 1)
xy.sp = SpatialPolygons(list(
  Polygons(list(Polygon(cbind(x1,y1))), ID = "test1"), # box
  Polygons(list(Polygon(cbind(x3,y3))), ID = "test3"), # wide
  Polygons(list(Polygon(cbind(x2,y2))), ID = "test2")  # high
plot(xy.sp, col=terrain.colors(3))
labels=c("Hi!", "A very long text string", "N\na\nr\nr\no\nw")

# Note that the label for the tall and narrow box is
# not necessarily centred vertically in the box.
# The reason is that method="maxdist" minimises the 
# maximum distance from the label box to the surrounding
# polygon, and this distance is not changed by moving
# the label vertically, as long the vertical distance
# to the polygon boundary is less than the horizontal
# distance. For regular polygons like this, the other
# label positions (e.g., method="buffer") work better.
polygonsLabel(xy.sp, labels, cex=.8,
              col = c('white', 'black', 'maroon'))

#>          [,1]      [,2]
#> [1,] 1.999438  1.945393
#> [2,] 9.218740  2.000838
#> [3,] 2.000552 -7.478637

if (FALSE) {
## Example showing how bad the centroid 
## position can be on real maps.

# Needed libraries
if (require(maps) && require(maptools) && require(rgdal)) {

# Load map data and convert to spatial object
nmap = map("world", c("Norway", "Sweden", "Finland"),
           exact = TRUE, fill = TRUE, col = "transparent", plot = FALSE)
nmap.pol = map2SpatialPolygons(nmap, IDs = nmap$names,
                               proj4string = CRS("+init=epsg:4326"))
nmap.pol = spTransform(nmap.pol, CRS("+init=epsg:3035"))

# Plot map, centroid positions (red dots) and optimal
# label positions using the ‘buffer’ method.
plot(nmap.pol, col = "khaki")
nmap.centroids = polygonsLabel(nmap.pol, names(nmap.pol),
                               method = "centroid", doPlot = FALSE)
points(nmap.centroids, col = "red", pch=19)
polygonsLabel(nmap.pol, names(nmap.pol), method = "buffer", cex=.8)