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How to Convert MXD to SLD: A Comprehensive Guide


Converting ArcMap Documents (MXD) to Styled Layer Descriptors (SLD) can be a vital task for GIS professionals who need to transfer their mapping work between different GIS software platforms. MXD is the file format used by ArcMap, part of the ESRI ArcGIS suite, to save map documents.

Meanwhile, SLD is a standard format used to describe the appearance of map layers, widely used in open-source GIS applications. This guide aims to provide a clear and comprehensive process for converting MXD files to SLD, facilitating a smoother transition between different GIS systems.

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Understanding MXD and SLD Formats

  • MXD Files: MXD, or Map eXplorer Document, is the proprietary format used by ESRI’s ArcMap software. It stores map layers, symbology, layout configurations, and other map-related settings. These files are crucial for ArcGIS users as they encapsulate the entirety of a map project’s design and data references.
  • SLD Files: Styled Layer Descriptor (SLD) is an XML-based format used to describe the appearance of map layers. SLD is part of the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) standards and is used extensively in open-source GIS software like GeoServer and QGIS. It defines styling information such as colors, symbols, and line widths, making it a universal format for sharing map designs across different platforms.

Tools Required for Conversion

To convert MXD to SLD, you will need specialized software that can interpret and translate between these two formats. The most commonly used tool for this purpose is the SLYR plugin developed by North Road, which integrates with QGIS, an open-source GIS platform. SLYR efficiently converts MXD files into QGIS projects, from which SLD files can be exported. It’s essential to have both QGIS and SLYR installed for this process. While there are other tools available, SLYR is widely recognized for its reliability and comprehensive feature set.

Step-by-Step Conversion Process

  • Step 1: Preparation of MXD file in ArcMap
    Ensure your MXD file is ready for conversion. This includes verifying that all layers are correctly linked and that the symbology is accurately represented in ArcMap.
  • Step 2: Using SLYR to convert MXD to QGIS project
    Open QGIS and use the SLYR plugin to import the MXD file. SLYR will convert the MXD file into a QGIS project, preserving the layers and their styles.
  • Step 3: Exporting QGIS project layers to SLD format
    Once the MXD file is successfully imported into QGIS, you can export the layers as SLD files. This is done by right-clicking on each layer in the QGIS Layers Panel, selecting ‘Save As…’, and choosing ‘SLD’ as the output format.

Community Edition vs. Licensed Version of SLYR

Understanding the distinction between the SLYR Community Edition and its licensed counterpart is crucial for users considering the tool.

  • Community Edition: This version is freely available and ideal for basic conversion needs. It offers essential functionalities, such as converting ESRI-style symbol databases to QGIS symbology. However, it includes limited features compared to the full version and might lag in receiving the latest updates.
  • Licensed Version: The paid version provides comprehensive features, including advanced document conversion capabilities (like full MXD, LYR, and PMF support) and access to the latest updates and enhancements. License holders also benefit from priority support for troubleshooting and technical assistance, making it more suitable for professional or extensive GIS projects requiring robust conversion tools and support.
  • A SLYR license is a one-time cost, which covers unlimited use within a single physical office location. There is NO requirement to renew the license after a period of time — the one-time license purchase cost entitles you to all future SLYR updates and versions. International (non-Australian) entities: €1200 or 1300 USDAustralian entities: AU$1600 (+10% GST)

Here’s a comparison of features available in the SLYR Community and Licensed versions:

Sure, here’s the original table with the licensed functionalities highlighted in bold, including bold symbols:

FeatureCommunityLicense (Exclusive)
Convert LYR to QGIS style XML
Convert LYR to QLR
Convert LYR to QML
Set style from LYR file
Convert ESRI style to GPL color palette
Convert ESRI style to QGIS style XML
Vector layer support
Raster layer support
Drag and drop lyr files from ArcCatalog to QGIS
Convert MXD/MXT to QGS
Import PAGX print layouts
TIN layer support
Point cloud layer support
Convert annotations and annotation classes
Convert File Geodatabases to GPKG
Convert project data to GPKG
Add layers from MXD to project
Convert MXD/MXT to QGS and data to GPKG
Copy and paste print layout items to QGIS
Convert QGIS maps to ArcGIS Pro MAPX and APRX
Convert ArcGIS Pro mapx and aprx to QGIS
Convert APRX/MAPX to QGS and data to GPKG
Convert layers to LYRX (vector/raster/tin/point cloud)
Convert LYRX to QLR
Convert LYRX to QML
Convert LYR/LYRX to SLD
Convert QGIS style XML to stylx
Convert stylx to GPL color palette
Convert stylx to QGIS style XML
Convert GPL color palette to stylx
Convert PMF to QGS
Convert AVL to QML
Export document structure to JSON
Extract SDE connection details
Convert SXD to QGS (2D)
Extract hyperlinks to tables

Troubleshooting Common Conversion Issues

While the conversion process is generally straightforward, you might encounter some issues. Common challenges include:

  • Lost or Inaccurate Symbology: Sometimes, the conversion might not accurately replicate complex symbologies. Double-check the symbology settings in QGIS post-conversion and manually adjust if necessary.
  • Layer Compatibility Issues: Certain layer types in MXD may not convert perfectly. Be prepared to find alternative representations or workarounds in QGIS.
  • File Path Errors: Ensure that all data sources referenced in the MXD file are accessible during the conversion process to avoid broken links.

Best Practices for MXD to SLD Conversion

To ensure a smooth conversion process:

  • Back Up Original Files: Always keep a copy of the original MXD files before starting the conversion.
  • Validate Data Integrity: After conversion, thoroughly check the QGIS project to ensure all data and layers are correctly imported.
  • Keep QGIS and SLYR Updated: Use the latest versions of QGIS and the SLYR plugin to ensure the best compatibility and feature support.
  • Gradual Conversion: If you have multiple MXD files, convert them one at a time to manage and resolve issues more effectively.

About the Author
I'm Daniel O'Donohue, the voice and creator behind The MapScaping Podcast ( A podcast for the geospatial community ). With a professional background as a geospatial specialist, I've spent years harnessing the power of spatial to unravel the complexities of our world, one layer at a time.

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