The Design Inspirations Behind the New Google Maps

Google I/O 2013

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One of the highlights of the Google I/O keynote this year was the introduction of the newly refreshed Google Maps. With updated design and information features throughout, I jumped at the opportunity to sit down with Jonah Jones, Staff UX Designer and Lead Designer of Google Maps, and learn a bit more about the design inspiration behind the new Maps. 

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Jonah, shown above presenting the updated Google Maps last week, was gracious enough to spend a few moments with me after the keynote to explain his enthusiasm and philosophy behind the new Google Maps. Our conversation proved to be equal parts interesting and enlightening about a service many of us probably take for granted. As the Lead Designer on Maps, he offered an open insight about the evolution of Google Maps features, alongside the design inspiration behind it. 

On side note: of course, this being Apartment Therapy, where we share an affinity for maps as decorative elements in the home, it was also just fun learning Jonah loves using maps as art in both his home and office, which only seems appropriate given his job.

The biggest change from a design and performance perspective revealed was Google Maps desktop experience moving to a vector-based solution in line with its mobile sibling (vector graphics are already available for mobile use). The move not only speeds up load times and sharpens the graphical clarity of information for end users while zooming in and out of map view, all thanks to WebGL, the decision was a continuation of folding in Google's services into a singular experience rather than "desktop" and "mobile". The flat vector graphics also harmonize with the heart of Android's predictive push notification system, Google Now.

As a public transit commuter, my personal favourite update announced was the new schedule viewer shown below. The tool will allow users to easily navigate arrival and departure times, taking a graphical cue from Google Now, the Android mobile notification system.

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Where did the design inspiration for the new Maps come from? 

Jonah points to several sources, namely classic print maps, some from a time well before any online cartography was available. While researching online and print cartography in 2010, his team found many online maps resembled those of Google, but there was quite a large degree of diversity in print maps. Jonah and his team took inspirations not only from tried and true cartography conventions, but also from classical Swiss cartography and the US National Park Service maps. 

Of course simply taking what works for print isn't enough, and Jonah also thought about the Maps experience in a novel perspective. Instead of seeing maps as a simple static resource, he turned to another inspiration: video games. He imagined Maps as a service where users could cultivate mastery and experience over a period time with use, similar how players journey through a video game, a gamefication of our daily outings.

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A peek at Jonah Jones' design work for music and websites offers insight for his affinity for unfussy, modern typographical solution.


Seeking to bring the best of print and digital cartography together, ultimately the challenge for the new Google Maps was striking a balance. The service is not just about mapping favourite places in cities, or providing directions, it is also about leveraging information that was once provided by separate sources like a globe, phone book, and atlas. Putting it all in one place in an elegant way is easier said than done. 

Jonah spoke at length about information clarity and decisions they made to improve information legibility, like that of moving yellow into a highlight colour, which you can see in the example below. Other decisions like limiting intruding graphic elements to only a search box, or the way Maps reacts to input data all originate in the goal of optimizing information retrieval in as elegant and unobtrusive manner as possible. 

After playing with the preview of Maps, it's clear Jonah's team has stepped further along in creating an experience that's accessible to a wide variety of users while at the same time providing Easter eggs and hidden features for power users. Note the evolution of the Maps design below:

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While the new Maps is currently only available for preview on the desktop, a mobile version is of course in the works. While we don't yet know exactly what the mobile version of Maps will look like, if this preview is any indication it will be the best version of Maps yet, and one that will set the standard for mobile maps. 

To learn more about the new Google Maps or to sign up for the preview, click here.

Special thanks to Jonah Jones!

(Images: Google & Joelle Alcaidinho)