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History of Mapping: Cartography to Digital and Everything in Between (Part 2)

Sep 10, 2019

5 min read

By: Shanae Vander Togt

While we are often focused on the current and future states of mapping and wayfinding, we rarely get a chance to examine historical methods and how they have had an impact on how we do things today. We want to pay homage to the many different types and styles of mapping, and dig into how we got to where we are. Welcome to Mappedin’s History of Mapping.

This week is a continuation of the second instalment in the series. Part one discussed how maps evolved throughout history and the standards they used to become more publicly widespread. This week, we’re exploring how maps continue to evolve with the addition of technology, and what traditional features and principles have persisted through time.

Over time, the ability to easily print and reproduce copies of maps would have made them more publicly accessible (thanks printing press!). However, up to the turn of the 21st century, most representations of spaces for consumer use were static maps that were typically printed in brochures or pamphlets or at a larger scale for indoor spaces like hospitals or malls.

The role of technology

As technological developments popularized the touchscreen interface, the way in which information was presented to users changed as well. Enter the shift from static to dynamic. This unlocked the ability to hold more information and present only information relevant to each user was during an interaction. By making information dynamic, it was possible to do away with the cluttered information-overload of a static map, and present information specific to the individual user’s needs.

Mappedin began by identifying a need to have indoor maps for visitors to navigate. There were few providers that were interested in digital mapping of indoor spaces. Those that did work in indoor mapping often only generated a static map, as it was needed for any number of different purposes. Because it took so much time, energy, and resources to create the different versions of maps needed, they were often out of date.

Moving from static to digital helped facilitate the streamlining of this process, and happened through a natural evolution much like traditional maps throughout history. And like those traditional maps, certain features and necessities are needed for a digital experience that people have come to expect. For digital maps, the key is that primary behaviours should be immediately available, or available with as little effort as possible. The idea is that this helps transcend translation, language, cultural, and even main purpose in a property.

The new standard 

How do these changes affect the way maps are designed? Maps have gone from static to interactive. What does this mean for how we build maps? There are a number of features that are common on digital maps now that are meant to consolidate a number of features from static maps that people are familiar with:

Map orientation

People need to easily understand which way they are facing, so that they know where to go. This was sometimes done with north arrow. Representation of streets outside the venue, and a "You are here" dot. Today this is accomplished with a dynamic ‘You Are Here’ arrow that points in the direction you are facing. The arrow is most intuitive when pointing straight, and as a result the orientation of the map is now even more important.


While the map information is now dynamic, the map itself should also be as understandable as possible without being too cluttered. The information within the map needs to adapt at different levels to show different details, requiring the ability to zoom in and out.


Colour is a useful way to achieve this because colours are still perceived the same way, therefore cartographic principles still apply. This means colours like blue can attributed to spaces such as washrooms (because of the association with water), while green is for landscapes and vegetation in and around the property.


Inclusivity is very important when it comes to contrast between important map features, as well as important between text labels and background colour. Here, there are guidelines like the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) that can be used to gauge if the labels and colours on a map are visually accessible.


The symbols used need to be universally understandable and as consistent as possible. This ties into the colour usage as well as using best practices for UX/UI design - designing for how people use it. These may not always be the best looking designs but they should always be the most intuitive. 

The future of mapping 

As we’ve seen, mapping is a constantly evolving concept as it changes to keep up with the purposes that we use it for. As the purpose changes, so do the standards need to change to ensure that people can easily read a map, find where they are going, and see any notable things that interest them along the way. Therefore, guidelines need to be created and progressed to continue to enable easy and widespread usage. As technology continues to evolve, the usage of maps changes but the need for navigation will always remain the same.