We have designed a new streets and labels layer for our satellite and aerial imagery. Too often, the interests of legibility supersede imagery - resulting in strong, distracting halos or heavily desaturated satellite maps. Good labels imbue satellite imagery with familiarity and meaning without calling attention to themselves. Good labels will never be noticed by someone searching for their house on a photo taken from space.

Design

Subtle context meant designing nearly invisible features. We focused on ghosty label halos and road casings that appear as negative space - and only when roads pass above or beneath each other. We styled administrative boundaries with a light and dark stroke so that one line remains visible against backgrounds of varying lightness, but the other disappears into irrelevance. We dramatically reduced the palette to whites and dark grays allowing for contrast but letting features visible in the imagery speak for themselves.

All of these design considerations were also made with an eye towards customizability, since you can change the colors of MapBox Satellite. Users should be able to choose a unifying aesthetic when annotating satellite imagery - light roads and light labels or dark roads and dark labels, and then change the color of that layer based on their brand or site design. Users should be able to do so without ever worrying about compromises to legibility or the quality of their imagery.

Highlights

Central Mexico shows complex, contrasting patterns at this scale. In the southwest of this view, near Zitacuaro, are pockets of dense conifer forest where monarch butterflies migrate to spend the winter. Just south of the center is Mexico City, a sprawling urban area with pale rooftops, and to its north is semi-arid farmland. Along the coast, around Poza Rica, is a region of sparse, humid woodland. The labels remain legible but unobtrusive against each background.

In dense urban areas – like Cologne, Germany pictured above – we strike a similar balance. Cologne features a combination of twisting medieval street and huge post-WWII redevelopment, making it an interesting challenge for labeling. Our new system performs well, marking important streets and landmarks without drowning the scene in text.

Tennessee is full of gentle textures in our imagery. In the west, you can see the relatively low-lying areas that used to grow tobacco and increasingly grow corn and soybeans. The land rises to the east into the foothills of the Appalachians, where the Tennessee River and its tributaries form large lakes. We assume that someone who has chosen a satellite map wants to see these details, so the labels are conservative and do not overwhelm natural features.

To start customizing your own satellite layer, sign up for a basic account and head over to mapbox.com.