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Before the start of the age of digital maps almost every kind of area distinctly displayed in a map was shown by some sort of pattern. Printing techniques used for maps were fairly high resolution but often limited to black and white or very few colors. So you could show a lot of information about areas by use of patterns while use of nuances in color was usually not possible.


Over time the use of patterns has developed into a sophisticated form of art often with the pattern being used to identify the nature of a larger area to the viewer in general while small variations in the pattern often function to provide additional detail information beyond the overall characterization. Jerry has recently discussed this quite in detail with respect to woodland characterization. Another well known example are patterns for rock and scree depiction, most famous in Swiss topographic maps.

Today most maps produced never see the ink of a printer and screens can display millions of different colors so colors are en vogue and patterns fairly out of fashion. This however has not only technological and economical reasons – maps generally also get less rich in information content. With a digital map you can easily switch between different specialized maps making it unnecessay to put all available information into a single rendering and producing maps with very dense information that are still well readable is difficult and a lot of work. When using purely colors to differentiate surface types simplifying the information shown is also a necessity because despite the ability of display devices and printers to show lots of different colors the human perception is only able to recognize and distinguish a very small set of colors reliably – subtle differences in colors get confusing very quickly.


In OpenStreetMap


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How random should it be – on patterns in maps