You only need to do a few things to get away from the “conventional” GIS map and improve it’s legibility and aesthetics. In this example below I wanted to make the top map easier to read and more interesting to look at, so I added some topography, got rid of the callout box, deleted the different colors for different states and the north arrow (both of which are unnecessary), simplified city points, and made the roads less visually fragmenting. The one thing that I like about the original map that I should have kept in my revision is the size of the highway symbols. I believe the symbols that I created are a bit too small. But with simple changes there is an overall effect of toning down secondary information and bringing the primary story to light.
Simplifying a Simple Map