Archive for October, 2007

Mercator and its followers: maps as representation of reality and expression of point of views

Posted on October 18, 2007. Filed under: History, maps, opinion, photography |

I came across a nice map today in the Discover Magazine showing R&D spend per country. While I generally love such maps, I could not resist a strange feeling looking at this one, mainly because countries are so distorted that they are hard to identify (look at Japan on the right). The interactive version that is accessible doesn't give much more information. This is another example of bad design on a good idea: showing discrepancies to make a point.

World R&D expenditure 

For ages we have been used to the so-called "Mercator projection" world map. This is already a distorted view of the reality, a 2D "flat" representation of a 3D globe, but has been the standard for its numerous advantages for the navigation on the world's oceans, a key issue at the time (16th century). If you add the fact that  in our western world it is centered on the intersection of the Greenwhich meridian and the Equator, some areas of the world are extremely distorted (as said in Wikipedia "At latitudes higher than 70° north or south, the Mercator projection is practically unusable"), but we are used to it as it magnifies our leadership in the world. Of course if you look at world maps in other countries (take China and Russia for example), the view differs considerably …

 World map centered on the North Pole

This is yet another illustration of the importance of opinion / point of view in the representation and communication of information… as the current global advertising campaigne of HSBC.

Half full or half empty ? 

As I said earlier (see here and here), visual language is more "universal" than verbal language, but of course this is mostly true for some forms of visual language such as icons, pictos, graphs / matrix, schemas, and some more recent forms. This is far from being the case yet for photographs and colors (direct representation of nature), which signification can differ considerably from one culture to another … even if a certain convergence can be observed.

World map centered on the poleUpdate : I just came across (via Bertrand Keller) of the very good information design / mapping tool that provides worldmaps anamorphoses viewed from different perspectives. It was developped by Roxana Torre : PersonalWorldMap 

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