About two years ago I was looking at a map of the world and noticed that Britain seemed disproportionately large.
My companion remarked that this was because in days of yore whoever was drawing the map always made their country look bigger and more important. This nugget of information sticks in the brain.
So for the last two years I've been taking pictures of Britain on world maps. Not accurate maps, but drawings or illustrations of maps. The differences are amazing. You might assume that all maps were accurate, or at least accurate-ish. But no, designers play fast and loose with the truth making the host country bigger, more important or more central.
Look at Britain in these photos. Look at the size of it compared to Europe. It's the same, but different.
Americans will be used to seeing this map of the world.
Whereas Europeans will be used to seeing this map of the world.
In this instance one isn't more accurate than the other, but the perception is very different and the power designers wield in shaping that perception is huge.
New Zealanders can often play Spot Our Country. Next time you see a map of the world on the BBC News or in the paper, look for New Zealand. Odds are it will have been left out in the name of aesthetics. If it's not left out then it's cropped to within an inch of it's life.
Most New Zealanders would probably prefer their maps to look like this.
The answer to most of these problems is to look at the world via Buckminster Fuller's amazing Dymaxion Map.
Back to where we started. Over the last few months I took lots of photos of maps, you can see them on Flickr.
Today I traced over England, Scotland and Wales. Please note these tracings were done quickly and aren't massively detailed. The results are quite odd.
They all look pretty different don't they? You know it's Great Britain, but some of them are wild approximations.
Next I dropped them all on top of each other (here I left off Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland because I wanted to compare just one shape).
That's a bit higgledy piggledy so I filled them all in.
Viola! The mean shape of England , Scotland and Wales by 14 graphic designers. Not very accurate, is it?
This isn't a cartography blog and I know some of these maps are over stylised for a reason but I want to make a wider point about graphic designers and the assumptions we make and how easily they are accepted. If you look at all the maps on Flickr they all look kind of OK. When I put them all together it looks like madness. Like people having been taking liberties with the truth.
Think of other times you do this.
Hierarchies are a good example. The point of bold and italic and underline is to make one piece of text more important than the other. But how many times do you see a poster where the text is bold, italic and underlined? I bet I could get a load of notices like that and achieve the same effect as the 14 shapes above. Everything would be bold.
Premiumisation - there's a word that really fucks me off. I once heard the MD of a famous packing company droning on about how his firm's USP was that they could design premiumisation into any old piece of packaging. In case you're wondering, that means lots of over elaborate folds, some foil blocking and a healthy does of script and moody photography. Problem is, take a look at the chocolate cakes in Tescos, I bet you'll find 10 'premiumised' brands, 4 value brands and nothing inbetween.
What I'm saying is that graphic designers have a certain amount of power, people tend to trust what they see without much questioning. We should use that power carefully.