The change has been subtle and gradual, but an examination of Google Maps' design over the last year shows a definite visual shift in focus toward destinations and places, and away from the paths to get to those destinations and places, as cartographer Justin O'Beirne catalogs in his recent essay, "A Year of Google and Apple Maps."

Here's a gif O'Beirne created which illustrates that change in a neighborhood of San Francisco (where O'Beirne lives). Pay special attention to how the park in the center changes, as well as how the buildings and destinations are highlighted and streets fade into the background:

O'Beirne writes:

Looking again at [...] New York, London, and San Francisco, we see a year-over-year increase in place labels...

...and a year-over-year decrease in road labels:

The increase in place labels also accompanies a subtle visual shift to focus more on places and less on streets, providing greater detail in destination information and emphasizing destinations.

While Google Maps is still a widely used tool for navigating roads, the shift makes sense; It was never about roads, it was about using roads to get to places. That says something about a wider shift in America too: as the desire for walkable, compact neighborhoods grows, the businesses that occupy those neighborhoods and provide destinations to walk to become more important than the roads and streets that line them. Another noteable shift evident in O'Beirne's illustrations is the move to show more walking paths and sidewalks in Google Maps.

If you love to geek out about maps, head to the article on O'Beirne's website for the full detailed analysis of how Google has adapted its mapping services over time with lots of illustrative gifs (as well as how those changes compare with Apple maps).

(All graphics from Google Maps, modified by Justin O'Beirne.)


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