7. Cartography: How Maps Help Us Understand Place

Person using a map
A guest contribution by Patrick Eley and Alan Stevenson.

One of the most common side effects of working in wayfinding is being really, really into maps!

One of the key challenges of reading a map, especially if you come from a generation that remembers being reliant on paper maps — is how to look at a 2-dimensional representation of your surroundings and translate that into the reality of a 3-dimensional world.

But when it comes to creating 2D representations of our 3D world, the reverse is also true. How can you visualise our spherical planet on a flat, 2-dimensional plane? If you peel the globe like an orange, how do you keep the peel joined together again when stuck on the page?

In the 16th century, a Flemish mapmaker named Geradus Mercator found a solution, his cylindrical projection resulted in the perpendicular lines of latitude and longitude, a system we continue to use today.

One key problem with this approach is that it distorts reality. The further you move from the equator, the larger land masses appear, meaning places like Greenland or Russia appear much larger in relative size than central Africa or India.

This warped Eurocentric view of the world has endured for centuries, generations of schoolchildren have grown up with a worldview that many argue reinforces colonialist superiority.

Even today, the maps we create tend to be a distortion of reality. On smaller maps for wayfinding schemes, streets are widened to accommodate typography and building outlines are simplified for clarity. Another example is transport maps, where distances are stretched and compressed to ensure the system can be presented legibly.


Contributed by Patrick Eley and Alan Stevenson from DNCO an introduction to Chapter 7 of their new book Straight Forward: How Wayfinding Works and Why Strategy Matters.

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