Monday, January 14, 2013

The colors knocked our socks off

kw: history, color, printing

The color maps we used to get on paper were easy on the eyes. This scan of a 1932 map shows what they all looked like (the original map is for sale at Etsy by VintageInclination - see the watermark?). My brothers and I loved the maps we gathered from gas stations along any road trip. We once wallpapered our clubhouse with old maps.

Considering what happened when computerized color printing became affordable, I wonder if at one time Rand McNally and others made really bright maps.

I first saw print-on-demand color in 1986, when I joined an oil company as a systems analyst. They had the money for large color printers that were used to make their geological maps and other graphics. At that time, nearly all their maps used the full gamut of saturated ink colors available. They almost hurt your eyes. There was some amount of "because we can", but the lack of easy shade control was a bigger reason. So a U.S. map would be more likely to look like this:

Curiously, this is a very recent production, by I guess there is still some taste for saturated colors. You won't find me wallpapering any room with maps this bright! I prefer pastels, and I'd be more likely to hang up a map toned down to this level:

The colors are still rather strong, but don't make me want to close my eyes.

I got to thinking about these things while watching Saturday's broadcast of The Lawrence Welk Show, a show recorded in the early 1970s. Color TV was pretty new in 1972. My family first bought a color set in 1968, when less than half the shows were in color. On Saturday, my wife and I both remarked that the costumes and the stage backdrop were very brightly colored. The band wore scarlet suits. In one number the singers were all wearing a blazing pumpkin color. Lawrence's suit was a more conservative color, but only by comparison! The later years of the show, the colors were more muted, though still distinct.

By the same token, early GPS systems like the Magellan unit I first used on a rental car in about 1999 had bright colors. Navigators, plus Google Maps and MapQuest and all the others, are more pastelized now. Only the route is shown in a strong color. The map printing business is also returning to more muted colors, such as this classroom map for sale at World Maps Online:

It is a little brighter than the 1932 map, but doesn't blast the eyes or make you forget why you were looking at the map in the first place.

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