In a previous article in this series, writer Chieri Higa explored why socially conscious designers should care about the world maps they use in their visual designs. Using the Mercator projection as an example, she explained how defaulting to a colonial map projection can have a negative social impact, influencing how people view themselves in relation to the world.
Giving a lot of thought to something as arcane-seeming as a map projection might feel irrelevant in today’s climate, but the 21st-century use of the Mercator projection by popular services such as Apple, Bing, and Google is case-in-point that the conversation still bears repeating. World maps are an important design choice primarily because they almost always serve to Other some groups while centring the rest. (Othering is defined by the Othering and Belonging Institute as a “set of dynamics, processes, and structures that engender marginality and persistent inequality across any of the full range of human differences based on group identities.”) When world maps continue to centre the European continent and place formerly colonised regions at the margins, they risk perpetuating the structural Othering of peoples throughout history, up to and including the present-day.
By Chieri Higa
Since visual applications of world maps are often carried out by designers, it is important to recognise the agency one has as a designer when it comes to choosing which one to use. In this way designers exercise a small but important power: at the very least, they can keep from perpetuating Othering, and at best they can create more subversive designs, contributing to the destabilisation of the status quo.
Using a variety of maps also allows the display of different kinds of information with nuance, whether the goal is ideological, practical, or commercial. Even if you’re working on a project that has no overtones of social or environmental justice, and even if using a map that veers from the norm would be jarring for your audience, there are still choices to be made — and some are ‘less worse’ than others. For example, instead of using the Mercator projection, you could use the less-distorted Winkel Tripel projection, or the more recent AuthaGraph world map, which is thought to be the most accurate 2D projection ever made.
The Winkel Tripel projection is the preferred projection of the National Geographic Society because it minimizes the distortion of shape, area, and direction. Source: nationalgeographic.org
The AuthaGraph projection. This projection is novel because it can tessellated, cut out and folded into a 3-D model. Source: authagraph.com.
This is not to say that there is a universally ‘good’ or ‘bad’ map in existence. The important thing when choosing a map for a design project is to make your decisions based on the purpose of the design, since the implications of world maps change based on the context that they’re presented in. Below, I’ve outlined three examples of such contexts.
In social justice projects
If you’re working on a project that deals directly with decolonial design or postcolonial subjects, then it’s especially important to consider the view of the world you’re trying to present. One example to consider is the To whom does the land belong? map created by Iconoclasistas. This map displays the areas of the world with the highest levels of biodiversity, and how that information relates to the populations of rural women and to the locations where events such as conflict and intensive mining have forced inhabitants to leave the region. The map is presented on a political map of the world and is displayed south-up. An equal-area projection is used, meaning that the relative sizes of the land masses are preserved while the shapes of the land masses are slightly distorted. The south-up display helps to emphasise the purpose of the map because it disrupts the idea of the ‘global south’ where a compass direction gets equated to the idea of economic development, instead showcasing regions with biodiverse areas of land. The choice to use an equal-area map ensures that these land masses are shown accurately, and finally, the rectangular projection allows the designers to fit text and illustrations around the map to suit a poster format. However, if they wanted to further emphasise the concept of ‘land rights’, a concept that is deeply rooted in indigenous issues, it might be interesting to take this map one step further and choose a world map with a projection that further subverts the traditional and accepted ways of displaying the world.
To whom does the land belong? map created by Iconoclasistas.
Maps on the covers of the Brandt report (1980) and the Brandt Commission (1983), a series of world economic development reports known for coining the terms ‘global North’ and ‘global South’.
In the display of PRACTICAL information
This next series makes apparent how the map projection as a base affects the quality of information transposed onto it. All three maps below display, using arrows, how humans may have migrated across continents based on research into the mitochondrial haplogroups in our genome. In the first map, the Northern Hemisphere is distorted to look slightly larger, making the lines of migration look farther spaced apart. The second map uses an equal-area projection, which conveys the spacing of the arrows better but does not show the physical relationship between Europe and Greenland due to it being a cylindrical projection.
I argue that the third map, though it is the most unconventional of the three, is the best vehicle to display this information, because it preserves the visual ‘flow’ of the movement of peoples and better shows how all the land masses of Earth are connected to one another, while keeping size distortion of the continents to a minimum. In this case, defaulting to the more common Mercator projection would be a missed opportunity, both in terms of clarity and in storytelling.
In ecological or nature justice projects
If you’re working towards an agenda of ecological justice, it could be beneficial to present a view of the world in the form of a map that doesn’t centre humans. After all, our planet is not here to serve us, nor does it bow to our efforts for control.
With regards to the map below, Decolonial Atlas explains that: “Conventional projections mislead us to see the oceans as separate, independent bodies. In contrast, the Spillhaus projection illustrates their connectedness.” A projection like Spillhaus would be great for an ecological justice cause involving the oceans not only because it shows how connected the oceans are, but also because it pushes all land masses to the edge, presenting a jarring view that runs counter to a conventional anthropo- (and hence, land) centric way of viewing Earth.
The Spillhaus projection maps the world’s oceans and helps to illustrate them as one large body of water as opposed to separate ones.
In a similar way, the below map shows the terrain of the ocean floor. Like the Spillhaus projection, it better shows how the oceans are connected while leaving the land masses recognizable. Interesting to note that while the Spillhaus projection completely sacrifices the land masses for a more unified picture of the ocean, this Lambert-Azimuthal equal-area projection keeps the continents accurate and recognizable, but doesn’t achieve the image of the oceans as one large body of water and thus would be better for a nature justice project that conveys the interconnectivity of people and the oceans.
The Lambert-Azimuthal equal-area projection.
So, how can a designer adapt the use of world maps in their own practice? First things first, get familiar with the different types of map projections available. Knowing the vast variety of graphic and aesthetic choices will help create more meaningful displays of information, and it will also shift away from the visual hegemony of a few default maps that are so repetitively used to the point of seeming objective. Then, begin to implement their use in your design practice. Even a slight shift away from the norm will make a big impact on your design. Choosing a world map is never just a visual decision, it’s a political one too.
Top image: An inflated tetrahedron which shows the AuthaGraph world map designed by Japanese artist Hajime Narukawa.
About the author
Chieri Higa is a writer and a ceramicist based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. This article was based on her master’s thesis in applied ethics, which can be read here.
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