Designers use world maps in many contexts: to convey the scale of certain information, to display facts and histories, and sometimes purely aesthetically too. When a design brief calls for a world map, how do you choose the one to use? Do you pick from the most common or available designs? Perhaps you’d choose the map you deem the most beautiful, or the most practical for the project at hand. Beyond the surface, though, world maps can be loaded with values that have shaped the way global society has worked for hundreds of years, revealing themselves to be one of the ways that material objects serve to uphold the status quo.
By Chieri Higa
If you’re reading this piece, you might be familiar with one such example: the Mercator projection. The original Mercator map was a technological innovation, allowing for greater accuracy in navigating the seas and proving to be an asset in European imperialist conquests. The image below shows the original Mercator map: it presents Europe in the center, drawn with the most detail, and distorts the land masses in the Northern Hemisphere to look proportionally larger than in the Southern Hemisphere.
The original Mercator map presents Europe in the center, drawn with the most detail, and distorts the land masses in the Northern Hemisphere to look proportionally larger than in the Southern Hemisphere.
This world map highlights countries in two colors: red for Europe and the United Kingdom, and orange for countries in areas once colonized or controlled by Europe. Orange dominates the map.
It can be seen in the map above how vast the regions that used to be under the dominion of Europe actually are. Knowing this, there are important conversations to be had about not just the accuracy of the maps we use, but also who they serve and how. When designers continually choose to use the Mercator projection, which was used by colonial superpowers as a tool to expedite the expansion of their dominion, what are we communicating in the subtext about the world that we want to be living in? Design writers such as Ruben Pater have also commented that the Mercator world map projection, widely used in graphic applications today, is a material remnant of a colonialist era and its ills. But can these material remnants of colonialism have demonstrable social effect?
The answer is most likely yes, but it’s difficult to draw conclusions on how defaulting to one type of world map has influenced the worldviews of people across the globe over the course of hundreds of years. One way to shed some insight into this, however, can be found in sketch maps. Sketch maps are maps drawn on a blank sheet of paper, from memory, and can reveal a person’s mental image of their environment.
When designers continually choose to use the Mercator projection, what are we communicating in the subtext about the world that we want to be living in?
Thomas Saarinen, in his expansive sketch map study, collected sketch maps from students all over the world in order to compare them and their patterns. For the purposes of the study, he requested that students draw a world map from memory, making it as complete as possible. One of the notable patterns emerging from this study had to do with the regions that each of these sketch maps placed at the center.
Two examples of sketch maps from Thomas Saarinen’s study. The first map places the European continent front and center, whereas the second one places Asia in the same position.
Since world maps are necessarily an abstraction (it’s a translation of a globe-shaped planet onto a 2D, human-scale panel), the mapmaker must choose the ways in which a map is distorted, and which information to preserve. This is often determined by the type of projection used. Another (and, arguably, morally relevant) important choice that a mapmaker can make in creating a world map, often overlooked, is which region of the world to place at the center. Though the standard world map centers Europe, specifically the prime meridian running through Greenwich, United Kingdom, it is possible to create maps that center any region, and even to place the north and south poles in places other than the standard top and bottom edge.
The use of maps that center certain nations over others can influence how people living in those places view themselves in relation to the world.
Saarinen noted that students from countries previously under British rule, whose education systems continued to use a map centering the United Kingdom, tended to draw their sketch maps with their regions of residence at the edge, and the United Kingdom at the center. He comments: “this illustrates one of the unfortunate characteristics of colonial mentality, the idea that the center lies elsewhere” (Saarinen 1987, 40). This sketch map study could, then, be taken as anecdotal evidence that the use of maps that center certain nations over others, especially in nation-states under previous colonial rule, can influence how people living in those places view themselves in relation to the world.
Also interesting to note is the phenomenon that a world map that places the South Pole at the top and the north pole at the bottom can feel wrong to look at for someone used to looking at a north-up map. That so many are so used to looking at a north-up map projection contributes heavily to the intuition that this is the ‘right’ way to display a map.
This Chinese world map is a twist on the classic Sinocentric map projection, placing both poles close together in order to display China in the top center, which results in the other land masses being arranged around it.
This Australian world map has the South Pole positioned at the top of the map and shifts the prime meridian to the right. By doing so, it places Australia in the center.
Interestingly, the map that displays Australia in the top center makes North America and Europe look like afterthoughts, drawing the eye sooner to regions like the South Pacific and Central America and countries like South Africa, than, say, the United Kingdom. In this way, the presentation of an “upside-down” map gives us a subversive alternative to a current global landscape in which the United States, Europe, and Northeastern Asia have the lion’s share of cultural and financial capital as well as taking position front and center in the standard, north-up world map.
Different kinds of graphic choices in the display of world maps serve to shape the way the viewers of such maps view the world. Since it is often designers (not mapmakers) who make the choice of what sorts of world maps to use in different applications, world maps become a matter of responsibility and credibility, and especially so for the socially conscious designer. The next article in this series will explore these contexts in more detail, and present a brief toolkit for understanding their implications.
Top image: A close-up of the world world on a Dymaxion projection, with 15° graticule, by Buckminster Fuller.
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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