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.
OK, OK, we're drifting off the point a little bit. Map projection is a huge topic and this Wikipedia page is a good place to start. There's also a good article called The Map Gap on BBC News.
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.
Brilliant stuff - especially the big squiggle. And know I have a new bit of jargon to ease into my vocab. Cheers!
Posted by: Wavish | Jul 07, 2008 at 22:35
This is brilliant. A bit like when you wrote that thing about kerning - that was a happier time.
Posted by: Paul H. Colman | Jul 07, 2008 at 23:34
I remember a magazine issuing a 'real' map of the world, I think it was The New Internationalist....it was very interesting, changed the concept I had of world geography.
Posted by: caroline | Jul 08, 2008 at 09:02
As you say the subject of map projections is a large and interesting one, but I really enjoyed the hands on you did tracing the shapes.
I enjoyed The Mark Monmonier book - 'How to lie with maps', which details just how many assumptions are made in cartography.
and Secret Bases is always fun
Posted by: Kev Mears | Jul 08, 2008 at 09:15
i couldn't help it
Posted by: Matt | Jul 08, 2008 at 09:41
Without coming across as a know-it-all (which I am not) I thought the reason the UK comes over as bigger is that the world is round and whatever point you look at directly is bigger than the rest because "the rest" is curving away with the surface of the globe.
So if a French map has France in the centre of the map (which is reasonable) then the UK will appear slightly smaller, and the middle east yet smaller, and so on.
This matters because it is often used in a politically correct context as "proof" that the UK has a superiority complex whereas in fact it is just proof that the map was designed for a UK market.
I like the ironic title of your post as nowhere in any of the maps does the word "England" appear.
Posted by: andrew | Jul 08, 2008 at 10:23
ha! nice one matt.
brilliant post ben. i think it will be interesting to see how maps change over the next decade, given the reach of google maps/google earth. will we care more or less about the shape of a country, or will it just be reduced to a link?
Posted by: lauren | Jul 08, 2008 at 10:29
Here's another one for you - Ptolemy's Anglia, Hibernia and Scotia. I think the shape of the coastline on older maps (pre 18th century) is limited by the inability to accurately determine longitude.
There are loads of medieval charts in the Maritime Museum collections, if you're interested.
Posted by: Jim | Jul 08, 2008 at 10:40
Another great post, Ben.
At the risk of seeming immodest, it reminded me of my post from a while back about the revised map of Belgium and Europe: http://www.davidthedesigner.com/davidthedesigner/2007/10/a-belgocentric-.html
And there's lots of other great and strange maps at the appropriately titled http://strangemaps.wordpress.com/
Posted by: davidthedesigner | Jul 08, 2008 at 10:56
Have you seen Peters Maps? They are 'area accurate' maps. I have one on my kitchen wall
Posted by: Emily Wilkinson | Jul 08, 2008 at 11:46
Brilliant stuff to which I will inevitably add a point of pedantry. Your filled-in ESW is closer to a modal ESW than a mean ESW as it features every designers' extreme points.
Posted by: John | Jul 08, 2008 at 11:49
On a more constructive note, they do a great chocolate cake in Waitrose.
Posted by: John | Jul 08, 2008 at 12:02
Best post of the year - so far.
Posted by: claire | Jul 08, 2008 at 13:29
Interesting post; particularly like the overlayed versions of Britain!
Posted by: Richard | Jul 08, 2008 at 15:03
I agree with Emily, the Peters Map is amazing. It makes you realise how BIG Africa is.
My favourite world map of the moment:
Posted by: pristyles | Jul 08, 2008 at 15:46
(North) American maps generally look like the European one. We don't like to split Asia in two. I don't recall ever seeing a map like the one here in all my schooling.
Posted by: Steve | Jul 08, 2008 at 19:39
Although this is interesting, it's really not that surprising. Do this with most countries and you will have similar results. I'm sorry to burst your bubble (it's still very cool the way you did this) but as a cartographer I have to throw in my two cents (actually 3.1 cents as an American living in Europe).
Basically what you're seeing here is a result of different projections (as discussed) and resolution/precisions. It's not that England is actually different sizes in these maps, it's just about the different ways that people transform 3D maps onto 2D surfaces which has obviously been noted by previous posters.
Furthermore, different maps are made for different purposes, leading to various precisions/resolutions in the map that accounts for the smoothing and generalization done to the coastlines. There are many different algorithms for doing such a smoothing/generalization and therefore you get many different shapes. Just what type of generalization you do (or what precision you start with) depends entirely on context. In most of these maps, you're starting from a world view so having every detail of the coastline is not only not necessary but from afar will likely make the coastline look like a giant black blob.
Anyways, it all has to do with context and the scale/projection that is most appropriate for the purpose that the map needs to serve!
Sorry, nerd alert. But I reiterate, very cool that you've gone to all the trouble of comparing them all. For a much simpler example featuring the lower 48 USA, see this link from Peter Dana's website: http://www.colorado.edu/geography/gcraft/notes/mapproj/gif/threepro.gif.
Posted by: Kate | Jul 08, 2008 at 19:56
Great post, I like the grid of normalized outline graphics.
Wikipedia has a pretty good write-up on different projection methods and why country sizes and shapes differ across modern maps:
I particularly like this graphic which gives you an idea of the amount of distortion introduced into the common mercator map:
I'd also like to point out that the "america-centric" map is not something Americans are used to seeing. We use the same world map as you old worlders.
Posted by: Noel | Jul 08, 2008 at 19:57
Very nice. As a New Zealander I often get nervous looking at maps - a bit like checking for your obituary in the paper every morning. Years ago a medical device company advertised themselves as the largest producer of device X in the free world. This over a background map of the world which had both NZ and Britain (but not Iceland) missing. Pedantically I wrote to them and they explained the map was an artist's impression. I suggested they use a cartographers impression but perhaps that would have been no better.
Posted by: Macdo | Jul 08, 2008 at 20:12
This is a cartography blog? You should know the difference between the UK, The British Isles, Great Britain, and England in that case.
And maybe it's a "viola" case.
Posted by: ben | Jul 08, 2008 at 20:30
Only comment I have is, as an American, I'm not used to seeing that map with the US in the center... unless I have and just don't realize it. Most world maps I know are wall maps or atlases, and those seem to have NA on the left and Asia on the right.
Posted by: John | Jul 08, 2008 at 21:03
To be fair, I'm an American and I think this is the very first time I've seen an America-centric map like that one
Posted by: Stephen | Jul 08, 2008 at 21:07
Steve is right about the purpose of the map. This is the first thing a cartographer should get a handle on before he makes the map. This means dealing with projection and scale. It's not that map makers don't agree, they just have different purposes for their maps. Turning a sphere to a flat surface will have to give up certain aspects such as area, angles or distance.
Posted by: Mike | Jul 08, 2008 at 22:01
This is a cartography blog?
Read it again:
"This isn't a cartography blog"
Posted by: Martin | Jul 08, 2008 at 22:12
That black shape is not the _mean_ but the _maximum_ shape of england.
Posted by: Kris | Jul 08, 2008 at 22:15
It's interesting how our personal biases (conscious and subconscious) enter into our work. I have to wonder though, how much of it is a conscious decision and how much of it isn't? To use the article's example, I can see US-based designers drawing the map with North America in the middle and UK-based designers drawing Europe as the center, but I would think that's mostly an unconscious decision because you base it on where you are and what is more familiar to you. As for the shape of England, I'm not too sure. Was it sloppiness? A "stylistic interpretation"? An accurate copy of an inaccurate original?
I do feel bad for New Zealand though. Poor kiwis. :(
Posted by: Gio | Jul 09, 2008 at 02:05
This post reminds me of an episode from The West Wing (The Crackpots & These Women) in which they discuss the upside down world map..
Part One: http://youtube.com/watch?v=efjcrbNcW6s
Part Two: http://youtube.com/watch?v=ZRtN4UK1wHk
Posted by: Steve | Jul 09, 2008 at 04:02
Dude, it's voilà, not viola. A viola is a musical instrument.
Posted by: KenLenny | Jul 09, 2008 at 08:39
"Americans will be used to seeing this map of the world."
I've never seen a map like that before in all of my years of school.
Way to assume things again England.
Posted by: American | Jul 09, 2008 at 08:42
The Englishman who went up an island and came down a continent :-)
Posted by: Sigge | Jul 09, 2008 at 08:45
What about the Isle of Man? You missed it off every drawing of the British Isles in your post.
Posted by: Tony | Jul 09, 2008 at 09:02
Why is the title called "This isn't England" if you're referring to Britain? Apart from that quite interesting.
Posted by: Jack | Jul 09, 2008 at 09:06
You actually traced over England, IRELAND, Scotland and Wales.
Posted by: Alan B | Jul 09, 2008 at 09:14
-Yank chiming in
Never seen a map where America was right in the middle. We use the one where the Atlantic is in the center.
However, I know the Japanese have a map like that(where Japan is right smack in the middle).
Posted by: Ikhlas | Jul 09, 2008 at 11:03
I've got to agree with the posters who say they've never seen the US-centric map in the US--it's invariably the Euro-centric one here. I have, however, seen such a map in Australia. Perhaps nobody minds having their country on the left side, either--just as long as they aren't pushed off to the far right.
Posted by: Dimitri | Jul 09, 2008 at 11:03
The island on the left is called Ireland. It is not a part of England, Great Britain, or the United Kingdom. ;-)
Posted by: Gavin | Jul 09, 2008 at 12:46
This is a great commentary on how "self centered" we human beings tend to be. First it was the earth was the center of the universe. Then, it's "my" country must be the main focus of the earth.
Poor New Zealanders. I'd never noticed they weren't included in the world. It gives me a new perspective on the NZ design company that stole my content, word for word, and posted it in their site and claimed their own copyright to it. No wonder it was going to cost so much to ask them to take it down... the lawyer couldn't find it on the map!
Posted by: Beyond Niche Marketing | Jul 09, 2008 at 14:14
Largely a waste of time and bandwidth. The vast majority of people blink, their eyes glaze over and they just go d'oh! Go ahead! Just say mercator projection to any of them and observe the reaction.
Posted by: Ed | Jul 09, 2008 at 14:15
Largely a waste of time and bandwidth. The vast majority of people blink, their eyes glaze over and they just go d'oh! Go ahead! Just say mercator projection to any of them and observe the reaction.
Posted by: Ed | Jul 09, 2008 at 14:17
Really interesting! I remember being amazed when I was travelling in Australia to find a map with Australia at the center. I had always presumed that all nations viewed a map the same as we did - but of course it makes sense for the to show themselves at the center of the globe!
Posted by: Steve - Eightyone Design | Jul 09, 2008 at 15:13
Don't miss the maps at Worldmapper:
This map shows the proportion of carbon emissions. Nobody from Great Britain, USA or Japan need to feel excluded there...
This is graphic design at its best!
Posted by: Ulrika | Jul 09, 2008 at 15:21
As a cartographer who styles maps for textbook publishers, I have to weigh in.
Yes, I have created North America-centric maps—with Asia split in two—when the publisher demands it, but prefer the Americas on the left, Africa/Europe/Asia/Australia/NEW ZEALAND on the right. Leaving New Zealand off is my pet peeve. Amazing how many times that happens!
Something I'd like to add to the discussion is the meaninglessness of scales on maps that cover entire continents, and more so, world maps.
The scale on a map covering a small area, such as one would encounter on a USGS topographic quad map, can reliably be used to calculate distances. But as the area covered by the map increases, the parts of the map that are farther from the center are distorted because the earth's curvature. Scale varies depending on latitude and longitude, and when you throw in different projections, size and shape vary (hence your many shapes of the UK.)
I often create a map from a different projection than the reference that was supplied to me by the publisher, when, for example, I transpose information from a marked-up Mercator map onto a less distorted Robinson projection. Frequently, a copy editor gets out a ruler, compares the sizes and scales of the two maps, and pencils in a correction order to "fix" the scale. I get weary of explaining why this occurs. Next time it happens, I will send them a link to this blog.
Posted by: Patti Isaacs | Jul 09, 2008 at 16:50
For all Kiwi's
Pacific Centred World Wall Map
(New Zealand in the Centre)
Mapperz did the Projection 'van der Grinten'
Note: The balance of the Americas and Africa continents were kept balanced for cartographic aesthetics.
Graphic Design is not Cartography.
"The mean shape of England , Scotland and Wales"
= Max Extent of 14 non-graphic designers.
Posted by: Mapperz | Jul 09, 2008 at 19:10
I can't quite decide whether the Western Isles of Scotland is Harold Wilson or Benny The Ball from Top Cat.
South Wales could be Tin Tin from a New Zealand perspective and North Wales is definitely related to Bruce Forsyth!
Good Game good game
Posted by: Nick Forsyth | Jul 09, 2008 at 21:45
As a 27 year old American I've never seen a map with North America in the center like that.
PS. I apologize for George W. Bush, I didn't vote for him, I voted with the majority.
Posted by: Mike | Jul 10, 2008 at 03:23
I love seeing these kinds of physical manifestations of cultural geography! It's all perception...
More on our friend Mercator (plus cool graphics) here: http://www.futuremaps.co.uk/scripts/projections.asp
Posted by: guinevere | Jul 10, 2008 at 22:58
Actually it is not all just perception and/or projection..there is something in generalization also ;-)
Posted by: Rain | Jul 11, 2008 at 10:04
Just as the topic is the "centredness" of cartography, the blogger is centred on his culture, English, and generalized the notion to include, regrettably, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and the islands around.
Sad, but normal in human nature.
Posted by: Alan Andrew | Jul 11, 2008 at 14:32
For a more accurate representation of the map pf Britain, you should have traced a mid-point in between the outermost and innermost line and thus found the mean.
Posted by: Printing Specialists London | Jul 11, 2008 at 14:37
I was just thinking the other day how deeply the shape of the British Isles is ingrained in my mind, presumably from the thousands of TV weather reports I've been subjected to since birth. It's satisfying whenever I see the shape, though I neither like nor dislike it. It feels like home I suppose, which is unsurprising.
As for its comparative size I'm pretty sure that it was topped in Harry Enfield's Cholmondley-Warner skits, though I can't find an image to verify this...
Posted by: Stuart | Jul 11, 2008 at 16:33
Posted by: Stuart | Jul 11, 2008 at 21:19
Very good Stuart.
Posted by: Ben | Jul 11, 2008 at 21:28
really neat--really interesting! as a recent american expat to the u.k., i've got a whole new geography (social, physical, political, psycho-) to learn. exciting! thanks for this.
Posted by: eireann | Jul 12, 2008 at 03:28
Its a fact that "What you see is what you get" We can't change this fact. :)
Posted by: Geographic Quiz | Jul 12, 2008 at 04:06
Promising piece that's filled with oversights and partial information.
Posted by: Yoshie | Jul 17, 2008 at 05:50
"oversights and partial information" we strive for that round here Yoshie.
Posted by: Ben | Jul 17, 2008 at 11:34
Posted by: Shaun Tollerton | Oct 29, 2008 at 16:04
This is great - I'd love it on a t-shirt!
It reminds me of Kim Dingle's "Maps of the U.S. Drawn from Memory by Las Vegas Teenagers" (http://www.mcwetboy.net/maproom/2006/07/kim_dingle.php ) which for me shows how differently people think about geography and what a wide variety of shapes can be seen as the US or indeed the British Isles.
I played with some of these ideas myself in my projects Ipswich to Everywhere (http://www.davidchatting.com/ipswich-to-everywhere/ ) and train_clock (http://davidchatting.com/train_clock/ ). I'm really interested in how much you can distort reality and think about how people really think about space and distance.
Posted by: Dave Chatting | Nov 14, 2008 at 19:19
Dude, very interesting!
However, please don't tell me that you think the Republic of Ireland is part of "Great Britain" or the "UK"?
That's like calling America "Canada" or France "Spain".
Posted by: Macca | Dec 04, 2008 at 18:56
I love this post, and how the Strange Maps blog have taken it up.
It's clear that mapping isn't truth - there's so much politics, geography, history, cultural and a whole glorious mish-mash mixed up in the idea of drawing a place (from whose perspective?), a nation (define the nation?), the world (from where?)
But that's where the excitement of mapping, cartography and geography lies, in the exploration of all that.
Posted by: Adrian | Dec 09, 2008 at 22:53
The island of Ireland and Northern Ireland has always looked like a Koala with it's head facing the other way. Just thought I'd make that extremely important observation.
Posted by: nicola | Aug 13, 2009 at 13:02
Thanks! just used the map- looking for a non-britain-o-centric map of the world, found yours or rather MacArthurs. Cheers!
Posted by: Benedict | Aug 23, 2014 at 09:20