No one can really debate the functionality of Google Maps, nor doubt its engine power, but as to the question of its graphic design, that’s another matter entirely. Yet, it’s leagues ahead of OpenStreetMap (OSM) and further still ahead of the other “competition” (Bing Maps)–that is, until now. Stamen Design has developed unique map skins which make OSM the most aesthetically pleasing digital maps available.
With three different styles, including Toner and Watercolor options, Stamen Maps add a sheen to OSM that had not previously existed before, turning a standard (i.e. unpretty) interface into a graphically subtle, yet sumptuous medium of transport. The high-contrast black and white Toner maps of New York, for example, embody the city’s moodier, pulp representation in film noir, comic books, and serials. The watercolor mode renders the rational planning of cities inexact and even “warm”, nullifying the precision of the grid as amorphous city blocks bleed into one another and the edges of bridges and infrastructure are reduced to squiggles. There’s also Terrain, for all those nostalgic for the good old days of MapQuest, which, funnily enough, has embraced open-source mapping with data retrieved from OSM. Best of all, the overlays are all Creative Commons-licensed, meaning that they can be used and integrated on any website.