Stamen's New Web App Renders Digital Maps In Watercolor

A new Creative Commons tile set adds a human, organic touch to cold digital maps. Now if only there were more projects like this.

Maps used to be beautiful, when cartography was as much of an art as a science, and dragons were as likely to be waiting on the other side of the world as new spice trades. But as of late, maps have swapped beauty for convenience and clarity. They’re experts at ushering our geolocated bodies from point A to point B, but they’ve lost that "the journey is the destination" mystique.

Designers at data visualization house Stamen have created a very cool compromise for digital maps. It’s a watercolor-like skin for any OpenStreetMap project, and it’s totally remarkable. Streets have an organic, analog roundness to their edges, and bodies of water aren’t a solid blue, but a mix of hues and color densities, as if the map is actual, textured paper slathered with a casual mix of water and paint. (In fact, the digital render is pretty much indistinguishable from any actual scanned map.)

Even if you aren’t a map developer who can take advantage of this relatively esoteric plugin (I’m certainly not), it’s an excellent model of the types of digital products to come. Stamen’s Watercolor is a gimmick, sure, but it’s not gimmicky. It’s just a more enjoyable and quirky way of looking at data that we all use every day.

In the last 10 years, the technical community has pretty much mastered maps, location triangulation, and dynamic directions. And now that we’re sitting on this solid, digital infrastructure, why not take approaches that are less clinical to create a bit of mass-produced personality? We can all use the chance to sit back and just enjoy the ride.

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