Map Perceptions

Whether it’s Googling directions to a restaurant or trying to plot a travel itinerary, we are all increasingly embedding the use of maps into our daily lives. What most people usually don’t think about, however, are  how these maps are presented to us, and how much they affect our perception of the world.

Admittedly, I was one of the people who never thought about such things, until I took a mapping course. Suddenly, my view of the world became stretched, skewed, and turned upside-down.

Mercator projection, Google Maps

Above is a screenshot of Google Maps when zoomed out completely. At first glance nothing seems wrong with it — but there are some strange things happening. Just look at Antarctica: according to this map, it should be as big as nearly everything in the northern hemisphere!

This view of the world is called the Mercator projection, and it was one of the first modern mapping projections. It’s really good at preserving angles and shapes, making it ideal for navigation (and hence Google Maps), but it doesn’t preserve size. Greenland is around the size of the Arabian peninsula, but it looks as big as Africa. In Mercator, the closer to the poles, the more exaggerated the size discrepancy – and it’s literally impossible to project the poles themselves!

This projection sporadically brings up controversy, because in general, it makes the developed nations seem much larger than they actually are. The following is a great infographic by GOOD:

The True Size of Africa: China, the USA, India, and many parts of Europe!

So what happens when you try to preserve area? There are numerous projections that achieve this, but my favourite has to be the Hobo-Dyer:

The Hobo-Dyer projection is one of the projections that preserve area.

It looks strange, really strange — but this projection doesn’t stop there. It’s supposed to be seen from two perspectives:

The alternate Hobo-Dyer: because why should everything be around Europe, anyway? Look how tiny it is!

There’s are also the happy-medium projections: neither size nor shape is preserved, and they are created for the sole purpose of being aesthetically pleasing. Since 1998, National Geographic has used the lovely Winkel-Tripel:

The Winkel-Tripel projection

Alternatively, there are projections that show the world from a central point, called azimuthal projections. A good example is the flag and logo of the United Nations, which is azimuthal equidistant:

UN flag
The UN flag uses an azimuthal equidistant projection, which preserves distances from the central point – in this case, the North Pole.

Finally, what happens when you take the Earth and attempt to fold it flat without splitting up the land masses? This is what Buckminster Fuller (you know buckyballs?) tried to do, and ended up with the really cool-sounding Dymaxion projection:

Extreme map projections!.Courtesy Wikipedia

So, what do you think of these projections? Do you have a favourite?

And more importantly, what does you favourite map projection say about you?


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