Stamen is a design and technology studio in San Francisco.

You are at Stamen's blog, mostly written by Eric Rodenbeck. You can subscribe via RSS, or get email alerts.

Contact Stamen

    follow Stamen on Twitter

    Recent blog posts

    Feb 14, 2013

    Questions from Webstock

    As I've done before once or twice, I got excited enough talking about the projects we've been working on that I ran a bit over during my talk today and didn't get to the questions I wanted to ask the lovely audience at Webstock to help me answer. Suddenly there was a "0 minutes left" sign (woulda been nice if that were bigger and brighter, you guys), and boom! tIme to turn it over to Robin Sloan who said about the Big Black Mariah what I've had in mind for some time, of course much better than I ever could.

    As I said, I've done this once or twice before, but these questions are important enough to me that I'd like to get them out in public so I take them seriously. So—bearing in mind that this was intended to be narrated by me, is super-early in their cogitation and public discussion—here's the question part of my talk in pdf format. For those not in a downloading mood, here are the basic questions, & some screenshots.

    1. how things look: now & then

    Mapping and data visualization today look a certain way. They look, in some ways, like early photography used to look, and here's why:

    • Both are all about the tech; you ve to be a nerd to do it
    • There's lots of talk around about what it is and what it isn’t
    • There's lots of talk about what it’s “really for”

    Let's get specific: Twitter visualizations, pretty soon, are going to look as archaic as this picture of me in jail in 1895:

    There's also Louis Kahn that I want to finally think about in public. "You say to brick: 'what do you want, brick?' And brick says to you: 'I like an arch.' And if you say to brick: 'look, arches are expensive, and I could use a concrete lintel over you - what do you think of that, brick?' Brick says: 'I like an arch.' " There's something here about digital media, especially as we get a better sense for what the form of the medium is like, moving out of the early days of photography/data.

    So my question for this one is: Where else can this analogy go? I think Robin Sloan probably has a stack of answers and I hope we get to talk.

    2. why do they things look the way they look: whose hands build them?

    • National Geographic maps: they look as if they were made by hand, and they are.
    • The DesignersRepublic: their stuff looks like it was made by computers, but isn't
    • Google Maps: looks as if it were done by a machine, but it isn’t.
    • Apple Maps: looks as if it were done by a machine, and was!
    • Watecolor Maps: looks as if it were done by a person, but isn’t

    So my question for this one is: if our most salient work is made by hand with robots, what else is like that? What else will be?

    3. what magic - literal magic - happens when you leave the cameras on?

    In 2008 google maps revealed that all the cows face north. this had never been known before! It was because google left the cameras on and made them all available.

    http:/kepler.nasa.gov does this with the night sky: leaves the lens on, discovers planets. My question here is: what else gets captured when the camera gets left on? what else can we learn?

    4. delight & utility: gardens, farms, beer

    Beer comes before agriculture. Gardens too. There are too many generational steps involved between grasses in their natural form and wheat worth harvesting for agriculture to be the thing people were shooting for when they domesticated plants. Drugs and beer and pretty flowers, on the other hand, can be made from a single generation of garden from wildflowers.

    We talk all the time about data visualizations and maps that are useful. We don't talk at all about data visualizations and maps that delight you and make you laugh. We should

    For this one, I don't have a question so much as I want to say this in public: delight precedes utility. Cool is necessary before useful comes along.

    And so

    I know it's raw, but people asked. If you're in a talking mood, you can find me on twitter and people are tagging their responses with #webstock. OK!

    Jan 14, 2013

    Hi 2013

    All right! It's 2013 & I have all kinds of new business to report.

    Back in 2002, when I was first getting serious about Stamen, I got my first real gig: my friend Dane Howard (formerly of Quokka Sports) connected me with some friends of his at DesignworksUSA, who were looking for a way to visually describe the process by which design decisions got made at BMW, and build a system to manage how they communicated this to the board. I flew down to Thousand Oaks and somehow managed to convince DesignWorks that I was their huckleberry. Having some Flash experience, but also having no idea how to actually build the server side of such a thing, I turned to another friend, Darren David, for help. He recommended another friend and colleague, Mike Migurski, as the backend coder for the project. He started coming by my studio after his day job was done, and after a pretty short while we were off to the races, working on projects over the years from admin interfaces for BMW to early mappings of Flickr imagery to Google News visualizations to maps of crime in the Bay Area. Today we're making public that he's moving on from Stamen, on the very best of terms.

    Would you hire this guy? I would (photo from 2003).

    I learned some valuable lessons from the experience. The first was: get the job first, and figure the rest out later. If you think too hard, it'll pass you by. The most important thing—the most important thing—is to have the paid work that will keep things moving. If you don't have that, it's all about talking and worrying and managing unknown risks; it's vital for skin to be in the game. The second was: trust your first instinct, go for it, and don't worry too much. After a month or of working together in a heady cocktail of cigarette smoke and techno music, I gave Mike a desk and a key to my studio well before we'd sorted out any of the details of how we'd work together, because I knew he was good people and we'd figure it out as we went. Eventually he came on as a collaborator and a partner, and the rest is history.

    Mike has since emerged as a vibrant and talented spokesman for our community (I encourage you to keep up with what he does next at mike.teczno.com; I certainly will), one of the foremost practitioners of open source tools in the service of making data more public that you'll find anywhere. It's been an incredible nine years of intense collaborative partnership—the most important of my professional life, and one I feel privileged to have been a part of. We've had quite a run, and all of this is very bittersweet: I wish him the best, I know he'll continue to do great things post-Stamen, I'll miss him, and that's the truth, Jack.

    Stamen Design

    Mike and I at the Digg V3 launch party in 2006.

    2012 - this is why we could never agree on Stamen schwag

    Welcome, new friends:

    I also have some new Stamens to introduce to you, as part of the forwardsy-rolling epic adventure, Stamen and otherwise, that 2013 is already shaping up to be. It's new days around here, and I'm super excited to be able to tell you that Seth Fitzsimmons has come on as our new Director of Technology. A devotee of the Church of Allspaw (it's weird, considering how often I've heard that term, that there's so little on Google about it), he brings a focus on instrumentation and transparency to backend systems that I think is genuinely going to transform the kind of work that Stamen does from this point forward. We worked closely with him on a project for Oprah Winfrey last year and I'm really looking forward to the results of this new phase in our collaboration.

    In another—is it OK to call this a coup?Mike Tahani has joined us as a hybrid designer/technologist of the type that we seem to specialize in attracting to our practice. Stamen alum Sha Hwang first called Mike to my attention last year with his work on datahacker.tumblr.com/ - it was pretty obvious to me on first viewing (his cabspotting riff are wierd and beautiful) that this was someone I wanted to keep close so I could learn from what he was up to. We've had a great couple of months working on different projects, and I'm glad he's decided to come on board for reals.

    We've also decided to take the plunge into some new territory for Stamen, one I've been interested in for some time now: Beth Schechter has agreed to come on to run Client Relations for the studio. As we've grown and the space of opportunity has expanded for us, I've increasingly found myself in a position where responding to new potential clients, and managing relationships with current clients, is harder to get to than I'd like. It's the lifeblood of what we do, and it needs someone to pay attention to it full time. Mike Montiero of Mule Design (who I asked for help with this—he knows his stuff) recommended we bring in someone to lovingly tend to this part of our business, and so: entre Beth Schechter, whose credentials include working the always-excellent Burning Man project, mapping work with Food Are Here, and managing projects for Stamen friend Zachary Coffin.

    Ok, let's go!

    Dec 3, 2012

    Google: #freeandopen

    Friends of the internet!

    In a few days the International Telecommunication Union, a UN body made up of governments around the world, will be meeting in Qatar to re-negotiate International Telecommunications Regulations. These meetings will be held in private and behind closed doors, which many feel runs counter to the open nature of the internet. In response to this, Google is asking people to add their voice in favor of a free and open internet. Those voices are being displayed, in as close to real time as we can manage, on an interactive map of the world, designed and built by Enso, Blue State Digital, and us!

    Adding your voice is pretty straightforward: the map will ask you where you are, and if it can find your location, it'll drop a circle for you right there. I'm in Lynchburg VA today, so I've added my voice from here:

    Once you've added your voice, you can share it—on Facebook, Twitter & Pinterest (which it looks like lots of people already are doing):

    The map has also been localized into 23(!) languages, reflecting the world-wide nature of the campaign. So it looks right in Korean, when and where it needs to:

    When I sat down to write this the count was 1,230,766; as I look at it now the count has reached up to 1,305,467 and shows no sign of slowing down, so: thanks Google (it's nice to be linked to from the front page of google.com), and: hooray internet!

    Add Your Voice

    Oct 29, 2012

    Stamen at State of the Map US and NACIS

    I went to my first Open Street Map conference recently—State of the Map US, in Portland. Stamen was one of the conference sponsors, along with MapBox, and ESRI and TeleNav, among others, and it's great to see and be part of the different industries come together to support this effort. I went with Mike and Nathaniel, who are more directly involved with this community than I get to be, and those guys also stuck around in Portland for North American Cartographic Information Society annual meeting the following week.

    Open Street Map is getting super interesting, with more and more companies and people signing on to use and contribute to the service. Carl Franzen wrote a three-piece article on the conference, starting with"The New Cartographers: OpenStreetMap’s World Takeover," and it was great for me to see the different forces at work in the OSM community up close and personal:

    "Nevermind Apple’s maps misfire, the free, volunteer-made OpenStreetMap, may end up reigning supreme anyway, as companies increasingly choose it for map data over Google. But as the project grows, it’s becoming harder and harder for its members to agree on what direction to go in next.

    OpenStreetMap, a free crowdsourced online world map started eight years ago, has seen its ranks swell to over 800,000 volunteer mapmakers around the world — 300,000 in the last year alone — rapidly becoming the go-to source of map data for successful tech brands including Apple, Foursquare and Wikipedia, as well as for government agencies like the National Parks Service, all of whom are wary of Google’s decision to begin charging for heavy use of its Maps API starting in January 2012.

    But as the project grows and matures, it’s facing a whole new set of challenges, the biggest of which is the question of whether or not to commercialize and move away from its open source roots.

    The tensions facing the community were on full display at OpenStreetMap’s annual “State of the Map USAconference in Portland, Oregon from October 13 through 14, a frenzied, jam-packed series of over 50 presentations and countless other informal talks between avid geographers and programmers who sprawled over a few generally overcrowded rooms at the Oregon Convention Center, fueled by coffee (beer at night) and their boundless enthusiasm for using and improving the vast and increasingly vital public map."

    It's a robust (and growing) community, as you can see here (in more ways than one - look closely and you'll see my son on my lap among the babies in attendance):

    Photo by Justin Miller on Flickr

    Nikki was a hit too with her watercolor stockings and blankets (coming soon!) based on Open Street Map data and meshu necklaces. A big year for custom objects based on open data!

    Photo by Justin Miller on Flickr

    Mike and Nathaniel took the stage to demonstrate some forthcoming client work we're doing, extending the currently US-only terrain maps from maps.stamen.com to cover the whole world:

    And Nathaniel took some time to do a Hangout with James Fee, talking about the San Francisco Giants (w00t!), Stamen, Natural Earth, SOTMUS and NACIS.

    Oct 11, 2012

    Facebook: mapping how viral photos spread

    Following up on last month's map of the world's friendships on Facebook, we've released another visualization of relationships across social networks today. Called "Photo-sharing Explosions," these visualizations look at the different ways that photos shared on George Takei's Facebook page go viral once he's posted them.

    Each visualization is made up of a series of branches, starting from George. As each branch grows, re-shares split off onto their own arcs. Sometimes, these re-shares spawn a new generation of re-shares, and sometimes they explode in short-lived bursts of activity. The two different colors show gender, and each successive generation becomes lighter as time goes by. And the curves are just for snazz.

    The visualizations are live at facebookstories.com.

    Oct 10, 2012

    New Designs for Yandex Maps

    A lot of what we do at Stamen is inventing things that haven't been done before; pushing the technical envelope on something like scary cartography, or inventing new techniques to animate the effects of climate change due to global warming. It's fun, and it's definitely a big part of what keeps my creative juices flowing: Hey, look at that shiny new thing! Are they really paying us to do this? Awesome! But it can also be stressful, particularly when you're planning your time and running the day-to-day operations of a studio, because fundamentally: if it's new, it's hard to figure out how long it's going to take. We have various mechanisms for accounting for this (including taking a loss on a project because we just can't help ourselves), but every once in a good while while we get lucky enough to take a second pass at something that smart people have laid a foundation for. This kind of work comes with its own satisfactions: polishing something to a high sheen, making it great instead of just good, really taking the time to pay attention to every detail and make sure that it comes out just right.

    We're proud to announce today, along with our friends at Yandex, a redesign of the online maps for Russia's most popular search engine.

    We have done the important stage of the project. We talked to designers, engineers and other smart guys during all time of the project. We achieved a lot of experience of mapping design. 

    For example, at the the begining of the project we collaborated with Stamen. These cool guys helped us pick main issue definitions, refine ideas, get important recommendations what to improve. We implemented it into final design.

    What follows are some before and after comparisons of the various design changes we recommended to Yandex.

    Many maps account for many different kinds of roads: freeways, business routes, on ramps, off ramps, service roads, residential streets - and show those roads as different kinds of strips on the map. We reduced the number of roads to three, greatly simplifying the display:

    District names are always tricky to label; you've got to decide how take into account things like major railway stations, and how they'e going to interact with one another. These choices have been improved:

    Zooming in a bit, we brought down the emphasis on the subway labels themselves, and made sure to label them for easy legibility:

    Zooming in further, we paid attention to the routes that the subway lines take under Moscow. Not having been there before, we needed to rely on our friends at Yandex for confirmation as to whether this looked right given insider knowledge of Moscow, but it turned out nicely:

    One more zoom level in and there's enough detail for the subway icons to be colored according to which line they're on:

    We did recommend a few new features, in this case one-way arrows indicating the directions that cars are allowed to travel in on different streets:

    And finally we improved the rendering of freeway interchanges, which if you've ever tried it yourself, is no joke:

    You can see the results for yourself at http://maps.yandex.ru/. And it's generally a good sign when your client, in town from Russia, comes to visit. Thanks Andrey, Alexander, Julia and team Yandex!

    Oct 4, 2012

    Map2Image: better, faster, stronger

    The Map to Image bit of maps.stamen.com has seen steady use since we launched it in September: close to six thousand images made, about half of those watercolor, a third toner, about one every ten minutes. We've made some adjustments and improvements to it that should make it even easier to use, and easier to see what other people have made.

    For starters, the results page has been reworked so it's a bit more navigable: where there used to be one long infinitely scrolling page with all the maps on it, each day now gets it's own page that fills up over a 24 hour period, so if you made an image on September 18, you're covered. There's also a graph at the top so you can see usage over time.

    Each generated image also gets its own page now, and we've included Pinterest buttons so the images are easier to share.

    Enjoy! http://maps.stamen.com/m2i

    Sep 4, 2012

    Map2Image is live

    Since launching maps.stamen.com and making the maps available for purchase in select cities on 20x200 we've been lucky enough to receive a steady trickle of interest from people who want to print the maps themselves. For those unlucky enough to have missed the watercolor letterpress map that went out with Jason Kottke's marvelous Quarterly.co subscription service, we're pleased to announce the beta version of M2I, a service that lets you print out larger static versions of the maps on maps.stamen.com. Now you can generate those long images on pinterest, chop chop!

    http://maps.stamen.com/m2i

    The maximum size you can currently generate is 2000x2000 pixels. This is to keep the servers happy; depending on how they run we'll likely increase these limits in the coming weeks.

    Please let us know what you think; we're looking into ways that people can order physical products from the site, because watercolor blankets and toner scarves are where it's at this season (and should be available from Soft Cities this fall).

    Aug 24, 2012

    New Hurricane Tracker for the Weather Channel

    In 2008 we designed a hurricane tracker for MSNBC, right as Irene was "bearing down on Louisiana like a shotgun full of wind and rain." The project worked fine for several seasons of hurricanes and tropical storms, until Apple killed Flash in 2011 and the world of interactive mapping and data visualization turned its attention to HTML5 and mobile platforms.

    Here's what I said about it at the time:

    I'm really pleased with how this project's turned out; in particular I've not seen a map like this before that gives a sense of the relative speed that a storm moves at (take a look at how Gustav slows down as it passes over the southwest coast of Haiti). It's not something I've really ever thought about before, but now that I've seen it, I'll be looking for it in every other map like this I see—which is just how I like to change the world. Congratulations to Tom and Geraldine for pulling this one together.



    This is the first time that we've released something this concrete. At dinner last night Lane told me that it was the first time he'd seen something that Stamen had done that was going to really matter to him in 72 hours. We've historically shied away from doing work that's overly predictive and analytical, preferring to focus on the lyrical and metaphorical aspects of visualization. This is the first time you can make a decision based on something we've built, and I'm glad we seem to have crossed that barrier without fretting too much about it. Just about every big decision I've ever made that's turned out well has been made in lightness and in haste; no sense stopping now!

    Much of this carries through in the new version of the hurricane tracker that we released earlier this week. What I said about making important decisions in lightness and in haste still stands (if anything it's gotten worse), but there are a couple different things about this project worth drawing attention to:

    • The client is the Weather Channel (previous work for them here), and we're working directly with meteorologists to ensure that the representations meet their standards.
    • It's in HTML5, so you can view it on an iPad. Which is good!
    • We've made some improvements to the interaction that I never got to take care of in the previous version. The entire histogram (chart at the top) is an active thing you can roll over, for example; the previous version only popped the rollover when you were over the lines.
    • The histogram and the map have a much tighter relationship now. If the whole hurricane path is visible on the map, you'll see the whole thing on the histogram, and visey versey. Conversely, if you change the map so that 1/2 the hurricane is visible, you see 1/2 of it on the histogram. You can see this happening in the images below.

    View Project: Hurricane Chris

    View Project

    Aug 21, 2012

    Announcing Burningmap

    Every year around this time in San Francisco things start to feel a little rushed, and there's anticipation in the air as a whole slice of society hauls itself out to the middle of the Nevada desert for the annual Burning Man festival. I'm not going myself this year, but my good friend Zach Coffin has been working out of an office here at Stamen on his latest song in steel and stone, The Universe Revolves Around YOU and it's been great fun seeing it come together:

    Given all the Burning Man energy in town, it's probably no coincidence that our latest exercise in pushing the boundaries of online mapping would tend towards the, well, combustible side of things. We've pulled together the latest in web browser capabilities and layered them on top of toner-lines from Citytracking, and it's called Burningmap.

    Here's Black Rock City:

    It works in New York as well:

    And pretty much anywhere else in the world you'd like to point it. Enjoy!

    Syndicate content