How Do You Build an Interactive, Clear, and Detailed Map of the Whole World?

Google wants its map to have a consistent style, but cities and countries vary in their geographical conventions. How do you balance culture and legibility?

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In less than a decade, Google Maps has gone from being a zoomable road map of the United States and the United Kingdom to a features-loaded atlas of geographical information. With varying degrees of thoroughness around the globe, it can guide you to specific business, around mass transit systems, through traffic, and even indoors, into the floor plans of a few museums, airports, and shopping malls. With Google Street View you can see pictures of your neighborhood and far-off lands; with satellite view you can explore the natural terrain. As it has expanded, Google Maps designers have had to grapple with more than the technical questions of how to make the tools work; they've had to figure out how to make a map that answers to the particularities of cities and countries all over the world, but maintains a clear and consistent look.

The process for balancing those two competing demands has been an incremental one, a gradual march of tweaks from designers -- narrower lines, brighter palette, cleaner labels (all evident in the above comparison between the 2009 and 2011 iterations) -- complemented by cultural research and input from teams around the world, explains Willem Van Lancker and Jonah Jones, two user experience and visual designers on the Google Maps team. He writes:

As the product grew and evolved, the map varied widely from one country to another, and the universal familiarity and usability that made Google Maps a success was being undermined by complexity and "feature creep." To better understand which of these variances were useful, we audited the map styles, colors, and iconography of maps all over the world with the help of local users. We examined the leading online and offline mapping providers in each country, in addition to researching local physical signage and wayfinding.

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For example, in most places in the west, people are used to relying on street names for directions. But in India, where many streets are unnamed, people rely more on landmarks. Likewise in Japan, where road numbers are assigned based on the date of construction, not geographic sequence. To make landmark-based directions possible, google designers implemented a system of points-of-interest icons that they believed would be widely recognizable across the world. But even these icons had to be further tailored to regional particularities. Van Lancker explains:

In Japan for instance, schoolchildren are taught a set of unique icons for everyday things like post offices and hospitals. To ensure familiarity in that country, replacements were created specific to Japanese users.

Another question for map designers was whether to standardize icons for roads and subways globally. They settled on a mix, something that would be both familiar for locals and useful for tourists. For example, they decided to use the local subway-system symbols, on the theory that both tourists and locals will benefit from the consistency when they are trying to navigate on the ground, but universal symbols for trains.

The designers' careful work is a reminder that a map is not just a small representation of a place, but a cultural artifact that relies on shared assumptions about what certain symbols should look like, or what is the best way to get someone from point A to point B. 


Images: Core77/Google.

Presented by

Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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