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World maps are not truer to the reality of the world than a spreadsheet with landmass figures of each continent.

In the ‘dark ages’ of the pre-modern world many cultures believed the Earth was flat and anyone who would be suicidal enough to travel toward the end of it would risk falling off into the underworld. This belief was the most reasonable concept at the time since science and observation tools were not advanced enough to proof the contrary.

Thus, the powers of the time made use of a special trade of “designers” called cartographers to model the world so the known facts and beliefs would make sense within a consistent bigger picture. These “topography designers” made sure to depict a heaven which was home to the gods who watched from above; and there was the Reich of darkness below, where wild and terrible monsters awaited the ones who failed conformity and risked to move too far to the edges of the world. More scientific approaches to map the world through the centuries led to more accurate representations, yet, even today we use maps that are known to be incorrect and we seldom debate the underlying ideology implied by these ‘designs’.

Maps as data visualisation
World maps are not truer to the reality of the world than a spreadsheet with landmass figures of each continent. Both entail measurements and estimates, but are in fact abstract descriptions of known data about our world. Since our perception is visually dominated, designers have done a great deal for our understanding of the world by visually interpreting data from narratives, philosophical debate, firsthand observation and mathematical measurement. It is understandable that during the realisation of these representations, they often had to fill in gaps to make sense of incomplete data or address constraints of the medium they were using. The translation of data into a visual representation is subject to interpreting data. Design informs data and thus creates information. In today’s data rich world, data visualisation is one of the foremost design tasks since it delivers information necessary for the understanding of our world. Most world maps are iconographical depictions which describe the shape and size of land and water; But topography has often been corrupted by incomplete or incorrect data, bad design tools, or ruling ideology.

Barton & Barton even suggest (in their article: “Ideology and the map: Toward a postmodern visual design practise”) that the map could be quintessentially ideological, highlighting that people generally seem to trust maps as a true depiction of reality. They argue that advertising in turn is not ideological, since people are well aware of the fact that ads are “just design”.

Size does matter
In 1569 CE, a cartographer named Gerhardus Mercator, designed a map for sea navigation, which has been known since as the Mercator projection. His challenge was to convert a spherical representation of the world, the globe, to a 2-dimensional map that could be printed onto paper and used for sea navigation, which was critical for the economic development of the time. For the lack of a better technique, Mercator simply “projected” the spherical onto a cylindrical surface.

Mercator map projection still found in classrooms today

Mercator map projection still found in classrooms today

You can check the effect of this with a simple experiment: Take a piece of paper and roll it around a ball or orange. Then use two pieces of string and tie the two open ends shut. The paper is now snugly wrapped around the orange like a candy wrapping. Next, use a pen and draw several circles of similar size onto the ball in various positions. Now, unwrap the orange and study the drawing. Fill in the gaps between the lines where the paper crumbled. You will find that the circles close to where the paper was tied together (the poles) are extremely distorted and enlarged, while the circles close to the middle (Equator) are still in good shape.


The Mercator map projection

The Mercator map, which is still widely distributed today, shows similar distortions. In fact, none of the continents are displayed in the correct size and proportion. Greenland shows bigger than Australia, whereas in reality the contrary is the case: Australia is significantly bigger.

The most prominent distortion of this “world view’ is Africa. The biggest continent of the world is depicted much smaller than it actually is. Note that the United States of America seem to be almost as big as Africa, whereas in fact the USA with its 9597000 km² is not even a third of Africa’s land mass.

On top of the world
The other astonishing feature of most of maps still used today is the position and orientation of the continents. North is at the top and South at the bottom. Obviously, these conventions make sense in order to make navigation and communication easier, but it also subversively established an irrational and untruthful conception that the world has a top and a bottom. What about making South Africa the top of the world; as we can find it on Vesconte Maggiolo’s map of 1512 CE?

Vesconte Maggiolo, 1512

A modular map
One of my favourite designers and thinkers, Richard Buckminster Fuller, designed his Dymaxion map in 1943, which projects the continents onto a geometric body made up of triangular surfaces. The result is a map that is much more true to the actual size and proportions of the continents showing Africa at its actual size. More unusually, the Dymaxion map does not have any right way up. According to “Bucky” Fuller the universe has no up and down, or north and south: only “in” and “out”.

As a flat pattern, the triangular elements of Fuller’s map can be assembled in many different combinations, each of them presenting a different point of view to the user.



Buckminster Fuller Map puzzle designed by Formula D interactive and Infestation for Cape Town World Design Capital 2014

The democratisation of maps
In the last 10 years, there has been a revolution in map design. The most prominent example and driving force behind digital geographical data systems is Google, whose massive mapping engines combine various data sources such as satellites, traditional maps and Google Street View car captures into homogenous and accurate maps like the world had never seen before. These collated maps promise to be more truthful and objective than their predecessors. Early adopters of GPS navigation systems may remember the frustration of missing roads or incorrect turns due to outdated or badly calibrated map data, but the likes of Google and Apple literally have millions of feelers (users and devices) in the physical world, which allows them to quickly find mistakes and constantly improve and update their maps. A powerful strategy is the crowd-sourcing of maps with Open Street map and other initiatives, which could finally lead to the democratisation of maps and subsequently could offer them a cure from ideology.

However, even Google with its incredible data streams still uses map designers to “hand-massage” map data into homogenous products as satellite and other geo data sources not always match up (The Atlantic)

In Jorge Louis Borges’ short story “On the exactitude of science” an empire was so determined to build the perfect map that the map ended up being as big as the empire itself. In the story, the map was eventually found to be useless due to the impractical size. In today’s world it would be outdated the moment one would commence with its design.

From a technological point of view this dilemma is likely to be solved in the near future, when cars and travelers of the developed world will all be equipped with cameras and tracking devices,

so maps can automatically be updated every millisecond without the involvement of designers. Yet, in this scenario, the accuracy of a regional map would be tightly knit to the density and frequency of people travelling in the region. The cartography of other, less popular areas like mountain tops, developing countries and deserts would remain the domain of the visual interpretation of designers.