Google Maps, where orange is the new blue (and also the new green, and red)

Google Maps is going through a bit of a makeover at the moment. There will, sooner or later, be an entirely new version of the web-based maps (which you can see in preview if you switch to the beta option), but in the meantime some of the changes that are part of the new version have also been rolled out the the existing system.

One of the things that has been changed is the colour scheme. Previously, Google used standard local mapping conventions for road colours. So, for example, in the UK motorways were blue and trunk roads were green. In France, toll autoroutes were green and non-toll autoroutes were red. That fits with signage, in both countries.

The new colour scheme, though, does away with all that and renders all roads, everywhere, in various shades of orange and grey.

I think that’s a really bad move. So do lots of people. But it’s probably best illustrated with an example. Here’s a screenshot of my local area using the new version:

(Clicking on the map will open it in a lightbox. If you don’t have a large monitor, then right-clicking and choosing “open link in new tab” will probably be better as it will allow you to see it actual size. The same goes for all the maps on this page).

The map shows Evesham at the bottom right, Worcester at the top left and Pershore in the middle. Up the left hand side runs the M5.

The major routes are reasonably easy to see, although there isn’t much of a visible difference between the motorway and other trunk roads. But can you see where the non-trunk A roads are on that map? What about the B roads? Can you tell the difference between them and unclassified roads?

The answer to that, as I’m sure you’ve realised, is that you can’t tell. Here’s the same area in the older version:

It’s immediately obvious at a glance how much clearer that is. Most importantly, Pershore is no longer isolated in a sea of back roads – you can see both the A4104 running north-south through the town, as well as the B roads linking it directly with Evesham and Worcester. Evesham, too, now has the key central spine road showing in a different colour, and, to the west of the M5, you can see the A38 which forms an important local connector in the area.

OK, so you may argue – that’s just the overview, you can see more detail by zooming in closer. Which is true. But the colours still don’t work. Here’s a rather bizarre splash of colour in Droitwich Spa, for example, where the main road is white but the slip roads at a junction are orange:

And here it is in the older, clearer version:

So why the change?

It seems to me that Google has forgotten one of the key principles of cartography: a map is intended as a representation of reality, not a work of art. To be sure, roads aren’t really painted blue, or green (or orange), so the actual colour you use for them is something of an arbitrary choice. But the way that roads are classified and used is not arbitrary, and there is a long-standing convention in map-making that the colours and iconography relate to those use in non-mapping documentation.

Going back to the first map, at the top, if you wanted to get from Wyre Piddle to Upton upon Severn, which way would you go? The map gives no obvious clues – you might assume that the only alternative to negotiating a maze of twisty country lanes is to go via Worcester. In the second map, it’s obvious: follow the A4104 through Pershore and Defford.

But, of course, people don’t use online maps in that way any more. Instead, if you wanted to get from Wyre Piddle to Upton on Severn, you’d use the “show directions” facility of the map. And, yes, it will correctly take you through Pershore. (Here’s a link showing just that, for comparison purposes).

And I think that is the key point here. Google no longer expects users to use its maps as maps. Instead, it expects the maps to be merely a means of conveying other data, such as computer-generated routes, and advertising, and links to other Google products. The idea that someone would look at a map, and, just by looking at it, be able to tell how to get from one place to another seems incredibly old-fashioned. And so there’s no longer any need for the visual clues necessary to make map-reading easy and intuitive.

I think, though, that that’s still a mistaken assumption. Yes, one of the primary uses of Google Maps (and Apple Maps, and Bing Maps) is for computer-generated route-finding. But it isn’t the only one.

It’s telling, too, that many of the positive comments you can find about the new Google Maps (and yes, there are plenty) online are all about how slick it looks and how “cool” the colours are. One review points out that “The redesign brings Maps into sync with the look and feel of the modern Google design aesthetic”, which is certainly true. Others, like this one, talk about how easy it is to use the new maps to search for pizza. As a local search tool, it is pretty good.

I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that Google wants the new Google Maps to be more about Google than Maps. But building in the new features doesn’t have to mean ditching the best of the old. And I find myself using Google Maps a lot less these days, so all those new features are wasted on me.

So what are the alternatives? Here are some screenshots of the competition, starting with the most obvious, Bing:

I quite like Bing Maps. They get the colours right, and the web interface has the option of using OS maps at closer zoom levels, which is a very, very good option indeed. But, at the wider level, the colours still seem a bit too muted and there isn’t as much detail as there could be.

The other web-based map that most people will probably be familiar with is OpenStreetMap. Here’s the same area, again:

One of the nice things about OSM is that it gives you the option of different tile sets. Here it is with Mapquest Open tiles:

The Mapquest colour scheme is a lot like Bing, except clearer. Purely as a general purpose mapping application, I find OpenStreetMap to be by far the best, with the Mapquest tiles being better at overview levels and the standard OSM tiles being better when zoomed in.

One that has to be mentioned, of course, is the grandaddy of them all as far as UK mapping is concerned: OS Maps. Unlike the others, OS maps don’t have a website of their own, instead, they are incorporated into other mapping sites. And they come into their own at closer zoom levels: there isn’t really anything to be gained from them at wider levels than the classic 1:50,000 series. But here are Evesham and Pershore on the OS map:

At that level of zoom, OS maps are genuinely unbeatable. The colours and iconography have been honed over decades of careful refinement, and, without the distraction of route-finding and advertising to contend with, the cartographers at OS have been able to fully concentrate on the maps themselves. It’s the inclusion of OS maps in Bing which gives Bing the edge over Google for close-up mapping, and their ability to combine OS maps with route-finding is unmatched as well.

One other that’s worth mentioning, though, is a bit of a blast from the past. Veterans of European travel in the 20th century will be familiar with Michelin Maps, but not a lot of people know that they’re online as well. Michelin is the direct opposite to OS in that it’s the wider zoom levels where they excel, so here’s a screenshot of most of Worcestershire:

Once upon a time, before Google got into the mapping act, ViaMichelin was my favourite online mapping application. Unfortunately, their technology hasn’t really moved on much since those early days – just about the only enhancement is that their maps are now “slippy” – so they leave quite a lot to be desired now. But Michelin maps, like OS maps, are maps first and foremost rather than being a vehicle for search and route-finding (although ViaMichelin does do routes), so the quality of the cartograohy is second to none and vastly superior to Google. I only wish they did a useful API so that I could include them on my own websites!

  • Smash

    I totally agree, the new Google map colours are ridiculous and unusable. Great little article this, I’ll be sure to spread it around.

  • liz

    new google maps is perfect!
    love the orange.
    hate mark hewitt.

    • Guest

      Clearly a troll!

  • Chris Howlett

    The main problem I have with Google’s new map is that if you search for a specific location – a postcode, say – it doesn’t stick a pin in showing where that location is. Which, since a postcode isn’t _named_ on the map, makes it pretty useless.

  • Philip Veale

    I’m really unhappy with the new Google maps. It looks worse, the colours don;’t make sense, and I’m particularly miffed that latitude has been removed. I used latitude a lot and their offered repalcement of ‘just use Google+’ is not palatable to me.

  • Cartographer

    This change has made me inordinately sad :(. Its the death of us navigators, us people who memorise maps, who love knowing where we are without a satellite, who don’t want to be a slave to modern gadgets. It’s a tiny alteration which belies the creeping change in our society from individual responsibility to non-thinking herd-mentality. As much as we want to fight it, it’s becoming apparent that when you can’t even get a decent map online anymore, our days are numbered. :'(

  • Truthism321

    Thanks. Articulated a few my hates re: the new maps. Also, how on earth do you “add destination” to directions … someone probably has an answer but why isn’t it obvious?

    The new Maps might have great features, but UI and everything mentioned in this article SUCK.

    Love Google products, hate sucky Google products. Fix it, please, nothing was broken.

  • George Rippon

    Great article this. I think the new colour scheme is a real mistake and makes it very hard to read and navigate around. I don’t see why Google can’t keep the old (rather the correct) colour scheme and still introduce their new fancy ‘how to find pizza’ tools.

    I think you make a good point though that many people probably don’t want a map and prefer a route planner / location finder. I think this is a bigger issue where more and more people want the technology to do the calculating for them – they’re only interested in the outcome. And then just as with Sat Navs – when something goes wrong (loss of GPS, road works), they’re completely stuck and unable to make sense of the road signs or layout ahead of them.

    If Google Maps wants to truly call itself a map then it needs to reinstate the previous road colours to meet the UK standard.

    OpenStreetMap does work well – is there a way to plot routes on it?

    • Stevie_D

      OSM doesn’t natively do route planning, but there are other front-ends that do – one that I use is, although it has some irritations it seems to be the best of a bad bunch.

      • Marc G

        What do you think of graphhopper?

        • Stevie_D

          Not so keen … you can’t drag the route so you’re stuck with the one option it gives you … bike and foot are good in theory but bike doesn’t use cycle paths even when they are available and clearly the best option.

  • Stevie_D

    Quick review of other map sites:

    Bing – colours of roads are fine and give sufficient differentiation (some major u/c roads shown as B colour, but no big deal). User interface isn’t great (there doesn’t seem to be a way to search for a place), and no country-wide Streetview. Colours overall look flat, and built-up areas not shown. On the plus side, it does show OS 1:50k and 1:25k if you zoom in, so I’ll forgive it a lot for that.

    Yahoo/Nokia – colours don’t give as much differentiation, but on the plus side does show built-up areas. User interface is slightly better than Bing, although just as I want to test it has stopped working on my computer…

    Via Michélin – potential to be great but fails dismally in UK because only two scales of Michélin map available and at all other times uses some horrible 1980s-style computer graphics. On the proper Michélin scales, it’s very confusing as the road colours bear little or no relation to the classification, and change between the two zooms. Their maps are much better in France where they have a very detailed level that shows almost as much road-level detail as there could possibly be at a country-atlas scale, but that scale isn’t extended to most other countries.

    OS – the ‘road atlas’ level of mapping is pretty good as far as visuals go, and obviously the 1:50k and 1:25k maps are unbeatable, but apart from Bing I’m not aware of any route-finder that uses them.

    OSM – doesn’t natively have route finding, but some other front ends have built this functionality in, eg Downsides are that sometimes the map can be too cluttered for its own good, vertical relief is rarely visible, and I can’t see a way to permalink a route.

    Another advantage that Google had was its constructable URLs – I know that I could put in and it would show me a map of Somewheretown. It wasn’t always perfectly accurate but it was bloody useful, and I’m not aware of any of the other sites that offer a feature like that.

  • Nick

    This change has driven me crazy as well and definitely seems like a step backwards. Pity there doesn’t seem to be enough feeling to petition google to make a mask to bring back to the UK traditional colours.

    It’s only when you start trying to use something else (moved mostly to bing now) do you realise just how pervasive google is in my life…

  • MrEMaker

    Excellent observations, I agree with everything you’ve said. I’ll be using other map options from
    now on.

  • touringmotorcyclist

    Thanks for the insight. Will be trying Bing. Failing that I’ll be going back to pages from my AA road atlas torn out and taped to the tank! Couldn’t google at least leave us with a choice of colour schemes?

  • der Stefan

    Thank your for your article about the new Google Maps. I am a cartograph at OpenStreetMap and also provide a own map. My first motivation to start a own map style was like “hey, why the heck is my beloved Autobahn in blue?”. So I didn’t really know about map designs in foreign countries. You are always used to your own map style. So what happened with Google Maps? Do they consider the German market to be more important than the British? I can’t tell you. But I can tell that they try to produce a map which Germans will be familiar with.

  • Kath

    Great article thanks so much for all the helpful alternatives to the awful new google maps.

  • Simon

    One point you might not be aware of is that the blue for motorways, green for A roads etc colour scheme was set out by the Worboys Committee in 1963 when they decided on the colours for the road signs.
    Very useful in aiding recognition I find, just as you point out in your article.

  • Mark

    The “new colours” are not new at all. They’re American! All that has happened is that the new service is defaulting to the US colour scheme everywhere instead of using local settings. The same happened with Apple Maps when they produced their first version of their own maps product. Gradually, Apple have been adding in local colour schemes (the UK colours were updated in the latest iOS7 beta). We just need to hope that Google intend to do the same. Remember, this is a beta application!

    • Charles Boot

      I don’t think that’s right. I’m an American and I understood the old color scheme. Now I need a map to help me understand the Google map.


    Today, the Google colours have gone from being crap to utterly useless and unworkable. Motorways are the same white colour as B roads. Go figure. Maybe someone at Google is on drugs? Who knows. Seems to change around all the time. Trying to find a decent maps app on android. The problem is it’s incredibly useful to pass locations back and forward between web and android. The colours on the web looked ok last time I checked.

    • Matthew Jenkinson

      Have been using Osmand on Android, not perfect but works well enough. And the maps – with POIs – are available offline.

  • jonplackett

    I could not agree more. I used to find myself quietly thanking google every time I use google maps. now it’s a shambles. half of my local area is just white roads with not structure. all the road shapes I used to use to orient myself are gone. I just can’t understand how they’ve screwed it up so, so badly.

  • Gerald Yuen
  • I got sufficiently fed up with Google’s new colour scheme that I’ve made myself an alternative online map:

  • apsley

    I wish that they would do something about their terrain layer. The shading is atrocious and contour lines and trails are almost invisible. How do they expect anyone to actually use it?

  • Charles Boot

    Google Maps, YouTube, & Gmail used to be the best. Many people signed up for and used these three things. Then Google goes, “We can’t have all of this contentment and user-friendliness ballyhoo! Now that so many people use these things, how can we drive them to our competitors?” That seems to be their modus operandi anymore.

    [Know the article is a year old, but I just read it. Great article!]

  • Chris Bell

    Bing it is then.A few years ago BT changed the colours of their vans to Grey from Yellow (but sea rescue Helicopters stayed yellow ) so in fog when working in the roads we vanished (yes we had beacons, but even so).I questioned this and BT said it was the brightest shade of grey though.NO hope.