(Re)Designing Google Maps

Google City Maps

Google's city maps of Sydney, New York, and San Francisco in 2009 (top row) and in 2011 (bottom row).

Cartographic design choices are well done when they are largely unnoticed by the map user. On maps that are to be used—rather than simply admired for their artistry—the color palette, icons, lines, and layers of information should work together seamlessly to create a clear, accurate, and logical picture of the world.

Google Maps and other online maps provide information about the world’s largest cities and most isolated places. We can plan driving or walking routes, locate local businesses, and “see” the cultural and physical features of a place, all with unprecedented ease. Imagine the challenge of finding a detailed map of Budapest, for example, just ten years ago. Now online street maps and satellite views are available in mere seconds.

Willem Van Lancker, “a user experience and visual designer,” and Jonah Jones, “the lead user experience designer,” for Google Maps recently described the cartographic evolution of Google’s maps in Core77, on online design magazine. They described the challenges Google faces in designing a map that is useful for both local residents and visitors in countries around the world.

The days of hand-drawn maps are long gone, so it’s not surprising that Google’s process involves “hacking rendering specs and tweaking Javascript to produce interactive demos,” but all that hacking and tweaking are used to solve real-world problems.

As Google Maps has broadened in scope, we have also had to address fundamental differences in tasks as basic as navigation and driving directions. We have found that, generally speaking, people navigate primarily by street names in Western countries and by landmarks and points of interest in the East. This is due to a combination of factors including a lack of road names (e.g. in India where locals rely on landmarks) or just a more complex street addressing system (e.g. in Japan where street numbers are assigned by date of construction, not sequentially).

The Van Lancker and Jones article also gives insight into the challenges associated with selecting internationally recognized symbols and how the veins on a leaf helped inspire Google’s “hybrid” maps, which overlay major roads onto satellite imagery.

Whether you use Google Maps for wayfinding or for a bit of armchair travel, which I sometimes do, you’ll enjoy reading Google Maps: Designing the Modern Atlas.

–Tim Hill

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