Issue 61

The Design of Navigation Maps

Mihai Varga
Design Lead @

Raul Deac
Junior Designer @ Telenav

Automotive is one of those industries that push a lot of technological innovation into people's life. New technology such as active displays, health monitoring, remote access and biometric systems are already part of the projects big players are involved in. Software is essential in all of these. Self-driving and connected cars technologies will revolutionize the auto industry even more profoundly, but navigation maps will remain as important as they are today.

Navigation maps

Although futuristic technology gets the most media attention in the automotive field, navigation maps used in cars have a significant role and they impact a fair share of the driving experience. Advanced maps guide the driver through an environment that is becoming more difficult to navigate due to increasing traffic and an abundance of distracting factors. Modern navigation depends on maps where the driver can choose a destination and a preferred route. Maps offer an overview of the environment and they help the driver with situational awareness. All of this has a direct impact on driving behavior. With the progressive transition to self-driving, maps will gain in importance, allowing passengers to control the car while also offering the comfort of knowing where you are, where you're heading and what is going on around you.

Most maps in the automotive field are unattractive and difficult to use, which is why many drivers prefer to navigate using their smartphone. This is how a dynamic niche came into being, where the experience of interacting with maps is being continuously refined. Although navigating with a smartphone while driving involves dangerous behavior, such as attention defocussing from the road, people prefer this risk to using an unfriendly map. Clearly one must ask: what are the elements an optimal map must possess?

Regardless of the personality a map must express based on the branding, the following factors can determine how the driver perceives the map.

Visual structure of the map

The width ratios between the elements in a map are essential for its comprehensibility. Proportions of dimensions have to take stock of the interaction among the map elements at all zoom levels. Optimal calibration requires great effort and attention to detail so that in the end the visual experience of the map elements is balanced.

Visual hierarchy

A navigation map is a complex collection of various elements, all of which weigh in with a particular relevance for the driver. These elements all have to be displayed according to their importance. For example, each road type must have a size that gives a clue about its importance compared to the other roads. Exact geographic details may be neglected, but a visual hierarchy is created that helps to identify elements on the map.

Abundance of elements

A map could potentially comprise an infinite number of details, but the challenge is to reduce their number, to achieve the goal of a clean and uncluttered map, which is still informative. This is much more difficult than it sounds, because each context comes with a different set of requirements. A considerable research effort is required and it has to be combined with cognitive discipline to select the most valuable elements to avoid clutter on the map. Algorithms can be created to calculate zoom levels and to make less important elements disappear as one moves from one level to the next.

Labels and text

Labels on the map give meaning to graphics. However, one must be mindful of the context of driving, where the time to read labels is incredibly brief, most often less than two seconds. Using the proper font that can be rendered on all backgrounds is essential for creating a map that can be used safely.


Maps offer a highly simplified and abstract view of a complex environment. There aren't many levers to pull when designing to achieve an efficient communication with the user, but contrast is among the most powerful. Contrasts have to be used with great intelligence based on the visual hierarchy. For example, the contrast difference between water and ground on a map should be significant in order to make them distinguishable, while the contrast between parks and forests can be less pronounced, as it is not life threatening.


Points of interest are shown using icons, to reduce the amount of text in the map. However, this invites the challenge to create icons that are universal in meaning, with a pleasant look. On a map icons are rendered in a truly tiny size and creating these icons to be clear and consistent in terms of design, in very few pixels, is a real challenge.

Map adaptability

The construction of navigation maps must pay regards to the fact that they have to work in many different contexts. Thus, they adapt to light in the environment but also to zoom levels, each coming with a set of requirements. Each zoom level suggests a different use case, but the way map elements are rendered has to adapt to these use cases.

Color harmony

Most maps use conventional colors for geographic features, such as green for forests or parks, and blue for water. Notwithstanding these conventions, colors have a functional role, namely to support visual processing and to offer information about the location of important polygons (such as hospitals or airports). Further, map designers must be aware that different elements must be distinguishable and identifiable. At the same time maps must achieve a pleasant look and feel that fits the brand.

What is the future of navigation maps?

Through the latest generation of automotive maps the navigation experience will be enriched with innovative components such as personalized information using artificial intelligence, the introduction of 3D elements with details and textures for quicker localization, and a visual indication of road elevation. Further, the navigation system can learn from the driver's behavior and habits to personalize the route.

Map data can be used with the car's sensors to enhance the quality of the cruise system, the adaptive lighting system and so on. Further, cars can communicate between themselves to receive real time updates for map data and traffic information. For example, if a car comes across road works, its navigation system will update the map data so that all cars can update their route and avoid that road.

All these innovations come together to offer people a safer, more enjoyable and more sustainable driving experience.


  • ntt data
  • 3PillarGlobal
  • Betfair
  • Telenav
  • Accenture
  • Siemens
  • Bosch
  • FlowTraders
  • MHP
  • BCR
  • Itiviti
  • Connatix
  • UIPatj
  • MicroFocus
  • Colors in projects