Digital map design history


Regular readers of this blog know that i have in the past pointed out repeatedly and with strong emphasis that map design is a vital component in the cross cultural communication within the OpenStreetMap community. Accordingly the ability to further develop and innovate in that field in a self determined fashion independent of commercial users of OSM data is of critical importance for the future of OpenStreetMap.

Naturally, others have different views of what is specifically important in map design than me. That is not only something that i very much respect, i also think (and have pointed out in the past as well) that diversity in ideas and strategies in map design is likewise crucial for a healthy development of OpenStreetMap.

However, what i frequently notice when i see OSM community members talking about map design and related topics – like development of software related to map design – is a remarkable lack of awareness of the historic context, often combined with a tunnel vision on certain very short term economic interests rather than a long term strategic view of the matter.

The history of OpenStreetMap-Carto is something i have already covered quite in depth in past texts. I want to supplement that now with some broader looks at the history of digital map design in general. And while this is going to focus in particular on what is relevant for OpenStreetMap, it can certainly also be of interest for map designers outside of the OSM world.

My hope is that these thoughts will help OSM community members interested in map design a bit to overcome the simplistic perspective on map design matters that is too often prevalent in OpenStreetMap these days and to have a meaningful discussion on how to nurture and value innovation and quality in community maps in the project in a sustainable fashion. And if that should not come to pass, then these thoughts might still be of value for digital map designers in general in understanding how this field of work came to be in the state it is in now and where this might develop in the future.

The origins of digital maps

In principle, digital map design is much older than OpenStreetMap. But use of digital methods in map production in the early years happened predominantly not in the field of actual map design, but either in the data processing preceding the design work (like in the form of calculating statistics on measurements etc.) or in the physical production of the map, that is use of digital methods in reproduction and printing.

One interesting observation you can make from that period (which i would put roughly in the 1970s and 1980s) is that digital technology started to influence map design even before it was practically used in design work on a routine level. For example:

  • Use of color changed, it became more common to use a larger number of colors in maps because printing and reproduction technology made this possible.
  • Maps moved to using more abstract and more regular symbols and patterns. This trend has been fueled in particular by three things: (a) the widespread use of mechanical typewriters around that time and in the decades before and the relatively simple, standardized design in typesetting this introduced, (b) the use of dry-transfer methods like Letraset to create high quality labeling and other symbology in pre-digital map production with a constrained set of shapes and (c) the influence that early computer UI design had on design habits and fashions.

As you can see, there was a significant connection between the development in typesetting and the development on map design and this influence continued as digital methods got also introduced more broadly into actual design work. Therefore, i want to have a short look at the development of digital typesetting at this point.

Excursion into digital typesetting

Typesetting is interesting as a point of comparison for the development of digital map design, so i want to quickly explain its history here.

Professional typesetting remained broadly a fully analog domain until the late 1970s. After that followed a rapid development of digitalization along three different lines:

  • The digitalization of high end professional typesetting.
  • Digital takeover of the typewriter market using general purpose personal computers as technological basis.
  • TeX and the underlying concept of fully automated typesetting based on a semantically structured definition of the content and generic styling rules.

The first line was a classical digitalization process in the form of virtualizing previously mechanical processes and then achieving productivity increases by better re-using previously performed work steps in virtualized form. This is very similar to countless other digitalization processes in other industrial production fields. Known software products in that field were for example Aldus PageMaker and QuarkXPress.

The second line forms a significant part of IT history with the early innovators WordStar and WordPerfect not having a long term economic success and the late copycat from Microsoft (Word) being able to dominate the market until today. What largely fueled this digitalization of the typewriter were two factors:

  • The use of general purpose personal computers instead of specialized machines promised much higher profit margins for software companies.
  • The promise to eliminate the costs of professional typesetting. That this remains an empty promise in many aspects to date did not prevent tools of this line (commonly called word processors) to take over huge parts of the professional typesetting market – resulting in a substantial decline in average typesetting quality of printed documents over the last 50 years.

The third line is different to the other two and fairly unique in the history of digital technology overall. In contrast to most other digitalization endeavors, Donald Knuth did not simply try to virtualize a pre-digital process paradigm but newly automatized the full path to get from the manuscript of the author, formulated in a way that is convenient for the author, to the end product – a book with high quality typesetting.

That was a quick look into the history of digital typesetting – which i will came back to for comparison later.

Early digitally designed maps

Introduction of digital methods in actual map design on a larger scale came only somewhat later in the 1990s and 2000s. This process showed strong similarities to the development of digital word processing, in the sense that it came with the promise and was often rolled out with the aim to eliminate the craft of professional map design (in analogy to professional typesetting). Accordingly, the sector that largely pioneered digital map design in the early phase was Geo-sciences. Essentially, every geo-sciences department at a university around the world at that time had their map design office staffed by professional cartographers tasked with producing maps to illustrate the work of the scientists. Now the scientists were already using digital methods to process the data they were working with and often thought of themselves as the better cartographers and professional cartography as minor mechanical auxiliary work. Therefore these scientists were an easy and thankful target for the developing software sector around geodata processing. The tools that were developed and essentially sold like hotcakes at that time were focusing on interactive geodata manipulation and analysis and were offered with the promise they would also take care of any visualization needs without the need of specialized staff with specific map design knowledge. You can literally see this development in map design featured by contemporary scientific publication, where visualizations created with such tools are becoming more and more common during that time. Overall, the GIS software sector with its technical focus then substantially displaced and marginalized the distinct professional domain of cartography in the same way as digital word processing displaced the typography centered professional typesetting sector – at the cost of a substantial decline in map design quality.

The public mapping agencies followed essentially the same trend with a slight delay of a few years. Here cost cutting stood in the foreground as the driving factor. Over centuries in many countries official cartographic institutions had been an important device to demonstrate and project power and sovereignty – internally, but also externally, in particular in context of colonial and imperial ambitions. These efforts in many cases reached their peak in World War II but continued to stay important during the cold war period. With the end of the cold war and the spread of neo-liberal political agendas in western countries many of these national cartography programs were massively cut back – to a point that even maintaining national base cartography to previously established standards and keeping it up-to-date on that level became difficult.

Because this development in institutional map production came before or at the very beginning of digitalization we did not see a separate line of digitalization in professional cartography in the same way as we saw it in typesetting. Instead, digitalization in institutional cartography followed roughly the same route as in geo-sciences around GIS tools that focus on technical analytic and data manipulation capabilities. Some mapping agencies developed their own proprietary frameworks independent of or supplementing commercially available systems but they did not, for the most part, develop significant unique innovations, especially not in the domain of visual design.

In the products of public map agencies, these initial digitalization efforts came together with a decline in visual quality and design sophistication as well, in many cases leading to a complete loss of certain cartographic techniques in the repertoire and the institutional memory of these organizations. In some cases you can observe in the published maps how the map producers struggled with that and kept using old hand produced pre-digital layers and design components in their map long after digital production techniques had been rolled out otherwise because they lacked the tools to produce these digitally without an obvious major regression in the feature set of their maps. This in particular often applied to terrain depiction.

There is an additional line of digitalization specific to map production, that cannot equally be found in typesetting, that you can observe in the field of high visual quality maps and map like visualizations, usually produced by smaller independent design bureaus and independent cartographers. Here, digitalization came much later and made use of techniques and tools primarily developed in the field of digital art and graphics design. This is the only field so far where we have seen visual design innovation on a larger scale compared to the pre-digital state of the art. There has been some cross-over back from this domain into institutional map production, but cases where this happens are relatively rare.

The rise of interactive web maps

The big, disruptive development that hit the field of map production after the early digitalization steps that i have sketched above is the advent of automatically rendered interactive maps. This started in the mid 2000s and had a massive influence on all kinds of map design from the 2010s onward.

The analogy to typesetting becomes more murky here – though you could say that the equivalent to this development in typesetting is the spreading of hypertext and the World Wide Web as a major medium of publication and consumption of typeset text.

The main characteristics of this development were:

  • Maps becoming completely detached from a permanent physical manifestation and being produced primarily for consumption on digital display devices.
  • In connection to that, abandoning the map sheet concept and moving to a seamless and/or tile based production paradigm.
  • Replacing the limited set of scales that maps are produced in which varied between different cartographic traditions and that each had their own specific map design paradigms with a continuous sequence of scales with a factor of two between.
  • Introducing the concept of navigating the map interactively, both in the spatial domain and across scales.
  • Abandoning the diversity in map projections used in traditional cartography in favor of universally standardizing on a single projection (and consequentially in most cases essentially abandoning polar region cartography altogether)

As interactive web maps gained practical importance, the tech companies offering these became the main producers of practically used maps, taking over that role from public map agencies and traditional commercial map publishers. This is interesting because the tech companies of course, especially initially, depended completely on the traditional map producers for the data they used to create these maps. And as the traditional map producers became increasingly aware of this development, they began to view themselves increasingly less as map producers and more as the producers and owners of the underlying data, often leading to a tighter grip on said data by these institutions. This is the situation from which OpenStreetMap was born and became popular. But i don’t want to write about the history of cartographic data production here but about map design – so this just as a side note.

The automated production of maps is not initially an inherent part of this trend. But it soon became a major reason why this development was so disruptive. The characteristics of web maps as described above made automated rendering of the map very attractive and accordingly the early years of web maps in the late 2000s saw the establishment of many of the basic automated rendering techniques that are ubiquitous in digital maps today, like the drawing of roads with round line caps and line joins as a simple method to create a visually consistent depiction of a road network from a data representation as a simple line graph without context dependent adjustment of the drawing method. And, like in case of GIS software, most of the underlying paradigms did not come from traditional cartography or graphics design, but from technical applications – like CAD systems. Overall, the graphical paradigms that production of web maps was based on back then and that largely continues to form the main structure of frameworks today, was roughly what formed the basic feature set of high level 2d drawing libraries at that time. In a nutshell: Think SVG 1.0, not PostScript. This is interesting, in particular when you look how rendering frameworks today often try to retrofit these paradigms into the much lower level WebGL framework (often with rather limited success).

This second step in digitalization of map design came with a further decline in design capabilities. During the first digitalization phase, it was mostly techniques that could not be expressed efficiently in digital form using the constrained technical feature set of the tools used, that were abandoned. Now, with automatically rendered maps, the problem was that everything that was to be shown in the map needed to be derived from a data representation and a generic set of drawing rules. Those techniques that either required a complex or scale specific data representation or drawing rules too complex to be efficiently formulated in the languages employed for that purpose were dropped in this second phase.

Interactive web maps continue to expand in their domain of application these days, in particular within public mapping agencies. Significant progress has been made in the 2010s and the last years in expanding the interactive features of the web map paradigm in various forms, but in terms of map design capabilities, development has essentially plateaued. I have discussed where the limitations in automated map design are currently and what would be needed in terms of tools and their capabilities to move map design to the next level. For the large tech companies that continue to dominate the field of interactive web maps, however, innovation in actual map design capabilities is not a very lucrative field of investment.

This is where – as i pointed out in the past on several occasions – the FOSS and the OSM community could and should come in but unfortunately do not so far. Where development in OpenStreetMap is at the moment in terms of map design i am going to discuss in the next post.


That was a quick (and certainly selective) run through the history of digital map design and i am sure in the eyes of many knowledgeable readers i have missed important parts of this history. One important bottom line i tried to point out is that the whole process of digitalization, with its undeniable advantages in increasing efficiency and making maps more accessible to a huge number of people, came at the cost of substantial losses in design abilities and cartographic techniques, many of which have been developed and refined to very high standards in the centuries before. Many of the design methods that have been lost (or given up – depending on your point of view) already went out of use several decades ago, so that the last people who mastered these technique are no more alive or at least retired and not practicing these methods any more.

And it is not that these abandoned methods are inherently incompatible to digital application or even to use in automated processes. In most cases simply no one has so far invested in developing these methods for digital application or even the precursor to that: Developing the frameworks and languages to formulate such methods in digital form.

Coming back to the initially discussed analogy between map design and typesetting: Donald Knuth and TeX have been a truly extraordinary blessing for the development of digital typesetting that continues to set the bar for others in that field to this date and that forms the basis of a remarkable collection of high quality typographic tools. And this was not just luck – Donald Knuth was the right person with the needed background, skills and motivation at the right time that provided him with the freedom and the resources to pursue his project. Even if there was a Donald Knuth 2.0 today who was into map design, the social and economic circumstances today would make it unlikely for him (or her) to develop a TeX for maps. But that is not a reason to give up hope – even if practically useful progress could take significantly longer than i would like. My main concern here is that with every passing year the collective memory of traditional cartographic techniques – abandoned not because they are obsolete but because we lack the ability so far to continue using and further developing them digitally – fades away more and more.


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    • Thanks for the comment.

      I consider the display of coordinate grids of various types decidedly not an example where the move to digital production methods caused a regression in capabilities. On the contrary, grid visualizations can be considered one of the fields where digital techniques indeed quite universally helped and also one where interactive maps brought substantial innovation (by moving the display of grids from the map to the map viewing interface).

      That practically documenting different grid definitions in a structured and machine readable form is so far an under-developed field of collection of geographic knowledge is a different matter. But that does not have much to do with map design.

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