Update: Since I posted this, some alternative strategies have emerged for generating custom OSM-based cartography, most notably TileMill from MapBox. The Cloudmade editor is still around however and remains a great tool.
For all its data richness, the default style of OpenStreetMap on the main web site might not be for everyone. Of course, you can create your own tile server – there’s some very good tutorials for that by OpenStreetMap veteran Richard Weait – and work your way to complex mapnik style sheets, but that is not for the faint of heart, really.
Luckily, there’s a comfortable way for the rest of us to play around with map styling, by virtue of the Cloudmade Style Editor.
Although you need a paid license to do anything [..] You only need a free API key to consume a fair amount of map tiles with the style you created in your own web application, so it is a great way to get started with cartography and OpenStreetMap, and also to learn that good cartography is really hard. Creating a map style from scratch takes many hours of careful deliberation and tweaking colors, line thicknesses, labeling and all those fine details that distinguish an OK looking map from a great looking one.
The Style Editor has been around for a while now, but I started to really use it only recently. I am working on creating the best cycle route planner web site for Amsterdam, and for that I need a great looking map. I don’t know if I will end up using Cloudmade’s map services, but I sure appreciate them offering the use of the Style Editor for free to anyone. It allows me to test visualization ideas really quickly, because the
Map Style Editor can re-render your map after every change you make to your current style. One pixel wider for a road, a slightly darker tone for some land use category – tiny changes can make a huge difference in the overall aesthetic of the resulting map, so the easier you can tweak those details and see the result of your actions, the better. This is what the Cloudmade editor allows you to do like nothing I have seen. Give it a try and share your creations through the Cloudmade style catalog!