The challenge of designing digital maps

Ian Delaney
London 51° 30' 23.112" N, -0° 7' 37.956" E

We’ve been waiting to talk to Astrid Dawson, leader of the HERE cartography design team, for a while. She’s a busy lady, and she’s been working hard on the next generation of HERE maps designs.

astrid_feat

Astrid started as a cartography engineer, studying cartography and geo media technologies at university. And joined Nokia’s maps team in 2008. “Back then, things were a lot simpler,” she tells us. “There was one app and we knew the phones that it was going to run on very well.”

“Then it got a lot more complicated. Soon there was a web portal to the maps; then tablets, more phones, cars and now, any size of screen is possible.”

How to design a map

“Where maps designers start is with the field data,” Astrid explains. “And that’s just numbers: a combination of points, set into different categories. “It doesn’t tell you anything about how the map looks, the way in which it behaves, what to show and what to hide, or the colours to use.” So everything between a database full of numbers and the finished map is part of Astrid’s job.

bahamas

One map or many maps?

Every size of screen and context it’s used in will have optimum settings in terms of the level of detail and the use of colours. A full screen desktop app can have the luxury of putting in a lot of detail. A device that’s designed to be glanced at from arm’s length, while you’re driving a car, has to be a lot more Spartan – only giving the information you need to reach your destination. Less is definitely more, when it comes to most digital maps.

“We can’t show everything. A good map reduces the data shown to a minimum, without losing any of the necessary items.”

Doing this requires clever judgement of the zoom level, and depends on how crowded the area is, and how close you are to your destination. It’s also about the setting: how is the user interacting with the map.

“Back in the days of paper maps, you had one specific use-case to worry about. You unfold it and look at it just a few inches from your face. With HERE maps, we have dozens of possibilities.”

zoetnet

People in their cars, en-route to their destination; people on the street looking for something to eat; people at home planning a trip. The list is almost endless.

An engineering challenge

Nowadays, Astrid and her team has to not only design the maps, but also works with engineers to create algorithms that will scale the designs to optimally fit on whatever size of screen they’re working on.

formulae

You can’t just make everything smaller on a phone, and bigger on a desktop. Both end up unsatisfactory that way: instead, you have to work out different levels of detail, type sizes and weights, different horizons and levels of labelling in a sliding scale, so everything ends up looking good.

Global, local or glocal?

We also have an international audience to consider. Astrid describes how something as simple as a subway-stop can lead to many complications when the maps are being used across the world. And then there’s the decision over which icon to use. The team works to create a generic iconography first, something that will communicate “you can get on an underground train here” world-wide.

And then if there’s time, sufficient demand and copyright permission from the relevant transit authorities, they will sometimes create a more localised version. Here’s what subway stops look like in Paris, Berlin and London on the Windows 8.1 app, for example. It’s a very small detail, perhaps, but gives a good indication of the work that’s always being done.

localised_transport

And this is without considering questions of context. You need to decide whether to even show that stop or not. For a pedestrian, it may be very important. For a car driver, much less so.

You are special

Specific customers and use cases still need special treatment, though. “Many of the in-dash displays for cars we’ve seen have very low contrast compared to smartphones and computers,” says Astrid ruefully.

“So there, we can increase the contrast and thicken the lines to make the maps equally readable.” Other customers might have a very specific colour palette, iconography or typeface that needs to be carefully combined with the maps.

Another dimension

Now maps are using more and more 3D elements. Therefore, a lot more balancing is required. 3d-example

3D has a bit of a ‘wow-factor’ when you’re looking at a digital map, but when you’re driving, you don’t want things any more complicated that they have to be: “3D can make life very difficult sometimes, and make for a very crowded map. So we tend to try to use wireframes for buildings, and more radically sparse out what we show towards the horizon. You need enough to identify where you are and upcoming manoeuvres and waypoints, but should not get distracted.”

Love and pixels

Can you love digital maps? we ask Astrid, as our interview draws to a close.

“I trained as a cartographer. I love paper maps. If that emotional relationship wasn’t something we were working towards, I’d be very sad indeed!

“That said, there’s a lot of work still to be done. But I think we’re drawing closer with our next generation of designs for HERE.” Those designs remain secret for now. But we’ll be picking up with Astrid as soon as we’re able to show you a sneak peek!

image credit: zoetnet, Michael Himbeault

Topics: Design, Features, Fun Maps

Comments