Although there is no neutral and correct way of projecting the world, we have to be aware of the fact that each projection tells a different story about the world we live in. For instance, the Gall-Peters projection tells us mostly a story of political correctness, because it represents the areas and surfaces of the world equally. Not surprisingly, this makes it look distorted to the eye that is used to the Mercator projection. It is promoted by the United Nations, used in British schools and was introduced in some Boston schools recently. There, most children seeing it for the first time, were astonished, emphatically asking, as if they had been betrayed for years: “What, Africa is this big, really?!”
But if you think that primary data, scale and different projections cover all of the inherent biases that can be found in maps, I have to disappoint you. It’s really just the beginning. Because on top of this, maps show their actual content through graphic symbolism. Landscapes, borders, roads, bridges, buildings, harbors or processes of trade and politics are represented through colors, shapes, thickness, contrast, sizes, patterns and a million more things, which tell you what is important, dense, long, or short; they are graphic codes that create stories about the world.
Like the map of the oil and fuel company Esso from the early 1970s. It conveniently showed a visual difference between fast and slow roads. Fast was bright yellow, slow was less saturated. But this turned out to be wrong if you looked closely – because the bright yellow lines actually highlighted not all express ways, but only the ones that contained Esso gas stations.
As we see, maps are – as map theorist Denis Wood describes it – not naturalized windows on the world at all, but arguments about the world. Maps are not neutral, they are narrativized space, stories written in the language of cartography and graphic design. And if we consider, as pointed out by journalists, sociologists and writers again and again, that we will eventually become the stories that we are told and tell ourselves, we start to understand the delicate terrain we are in when we draw or look at a map.
But now the question is, how do we deal with these issues of bias and manipulation as visual authors and graphic designers? Especially in a world that is full of maps and infographics, generated by the media, states, companies, individuals and algorithms alike. How do we design maps in an age of democratized and automated map making tools, where maps are travelling as fast as light, creating evermore what Walter Lippmann has described as “pseudo-realities” of our information bubbles? The bad news is: We don’t have final answers to these questions. The good news: Here are some ideas.
For sure, you could do like Google maps and pretend that everything is fine. For instance, during the height of the Russia-Ukraine conflict Google decided to show the Russian version of the border line if you accessed it from Russia, and the Ukraine version if you accessed it from the Ukraine. So, if you want to run away from political problems of our time and please everybody in the name of slick usability and its related profits, you should go for this option.
Or you could do the opposite and face the contradictions our world has to offer, like Herbert Bayer did, a Bauhaus-trained, Austro-American graphic designer, artist, and architect. When approached by the Container Cooperation of America to design an update of their Atlas of the World in 1953, he decided to create a publication that shows a “new graphical narrative of humans and geography”. In order to achieve this, he collected most of the data himself, travelling and researching for five years throughout Europe, because “a scientist would not think in terms in which I worked.” Echoing the Austrian innovator of visual statistics Otto Neurath, who called his system of information graphics “International System of Typographic Picture Education,” Bayer called it “a good adult education” – and indeed, his approach represents the idea that a graphic designer could also become a much more active and educated actor, an author and editor of content who doesn’t accept the prefabricated data and shapes of his time and looks for new ways of collecting and visualizing information.