Stamen Design's watercolored maps make Google Maps look flat and tired. Is there a good reason our geodata has to be ugly?
The first thing I thought when I saw this interactive watercolor OpenStreetMap overlay was, I want this on my phone. I'd never considered the aesthetics of Google Maps against anything but the muddy and hard-to-read Bing maps, but this is just so much more pleasing than both. It didn't make my eyes hurt, which was a new and wonderful experience as far as maps go.
It's a bit cute and of course it needs labels, which might be hard to make legible against an uneven background — when presenting mixed text and images, readability rules all — but it got me thinking: Why is Google Maps the way it is? Why the low-contrast gray, yellow and orange? We've all gotten used to it over the years and it's always been easier on the eyes than its rivals (remember MapQuest?), but these colors don't really go together in most contexts.
To put it another way, are these inherently mappy colors? Not necessarily, according to a Google designer writing for Core77:
[W]e came to the realization that there was little consistency between this collection of maps and no real indication of a common "correct" palette for color and style rendering. By unifying and simplifying our own Google color palette down from hundreds to a small handful of colors, we were able to produce an experience that provided familiarity and uniformity as you browse the world.
These colors, plucked from a committee-selected "Google" palette, are now synonymous with modern mapping. And they could be worse! But maybe they could be better, too.