Alternative maps of the world

Peters World Map

What are they?

During Season 2 of Aaron Sorkin’s heroic television show, The West Wing, a nerdy but quietly zealous group called the Organisation of Cartographers for Social Equality introduce the Whitehouse staff to the Peters World Map, an equal-area map where 1 square centimetre of map equals the same number of square kilometres anywhere in the world.

Despite this map being proportionately accurate, the staff are shocked by the inconsistencies between it and the more familiar, but deliberately distorted, Mercator projection. Invented in 1569 to rationalise the lines of nautical travel, the Mercator map shows Australia to be roughly the same size as Greenland, despite it in fact being more than three and a half times larger.

The cartographers insist that the way a map is drawn reveals a great deal about the worldview of its creators: for instance, the centre has greater perceived importance than the edges. The distorted sizes of the Mercator map’s land masses further embellish the importance of the northern hemisphere and diminish that of the southern. They conclude by requesting the Bartlett government aggressively champion the use of the more egalitarian Peters map in all American schools.

What do we think?

A map, like any form of written or visual communication, is rooted in the time and place of its creation. If we care to look hard enough, a map reveal will many secrets: its language tells us of its geographical origin; the details of its contents tell us of the era of its crafting; its colour saturation and paper stock tell us of the technological sophistication of its printing press; even what information the map includes, and how it is included, can reveal the assumptions and prejudices of its creators.

A map can convey crowd data:

Internet usage in the years 2000 (above) and 2007 (below), courtesy of World Mapper

A map can be satirical:

Maps courtesy of the Mapping Stereotypes project by Yanko Tsvetkov, otherwise known as Alphadesigner

A map can be hopeful:

Global map looking towards 2050, produced for the WWF Energy Report by Dutch architecture studio OMA / AMO

A map can be simultaneously historical, mournful and beautiful:

Aboriginal Australia

What did we learn?

A map is not merely a means by which to communicate navigational information, it is itself a receptacle of social, cultural and political nuance. It tells us as much about the how and who of its creation as its what. A map is both time capsule and crystal ball.

Mystery meat navigation

What is it?

Mystery meat navigation (MMN) is a term coined in 1998 by author and web designer, Vincent Flanders, to “describe a visually attractive but concurrently inefficient or confusing user interface. Such interfaces lack a user-centred design, emphasising aesthetic appearance, white space and the concealment of relevant information over basic functionality. The epithet ‘mystery meat’ refers to the meat products often served in American public school cafeterias whose forms have been so thoroughly reprocessed that their exact types can no longer be identified. Like them, the methods of MMN are clear to the producer but baffling to the consumer.”

On his articulately-named website, Web Pages That Suck, Flanders dedicates extensive time and energy exploring the use of MMN in website design, paying particular attention to the architectural industry (here): “for an industry that depends on accuracy and stability, they seem wildly inaccurate and unstable. When it comes to their websites, architects seem to be one floor short of a complete building. They all need to be redesigned.”

What do we think?

Without doubt, the architects’ sites Flanders uses as evidence of the above claims are truly awful. At the risk of giving offence, Tamborra Design may have the most horrible website we have ever seen, a fitting claim given their equally horrible architectural works.

That said, in equating the use of MMN to shoddy architectural design, we believe Flanders has gravely misunderstood the role of architects and our general worldview. We are not in the business of signposting our buildings so they are immediately and easily legible. Indeed, if we have done our job properly, our buildings will tell users where to enter, how to navigate through and where to exit them without the lazy utilisation of signage.

As with good architecture, good website design does not need to spell out every navigational instruction. Rather, it should rely on the basic intuition and common sense every individual develops from a lifetime of using computers and browsing the internet. If there is no “Enter Here” blinking on and off, perhaps try clicking on the big photo in the centre of the page.

Finally, with respect Mr. Flanders, please explain why you have not bothered to ensure your website is immune from the very design defects you criticise? Your website is unattractive, difficult to navigate, burdened with annoyingly-located advertising and verbose. We suggest you consider the sturdiness of your glass house before you throw stones.

The opposite of graffiti

What is it?

As graffiti is commonly understood to involve the addition of paint or other markings to bare public surfaces, its opposite would be the removal of such markings. Or, as in the case of the Ossario project by Brazilian artist, Alexandre Orion, it is the selective removal of dirt and grime to reveal a fresco of clean wall (first seen at fellow WordPress blog, Inspirational Geek).

Orion was approached by authorities several times during his nightly visits to the tunnel, but they were powerless to stop him – there’s nothing illegal about cleaning. In the end, they could only remove his installation by high-pressure hosing the whole tunnel from end to end. They didn’t stop with Orion’s tunnel either, but continued onto every other tunnel in the city, cleaning them all.

What do we think?

Orion has a specific agenda with this project, to highlight both the extreme quantities of pollution coating the tunnels of São Paulo and the public’s carelessness towards it. His choice of graphic imagery for the installation, a 160m long collection of sightless skulls, is a singular gesture that brings together the many layers of meaning in his work – skulls rendered as death, pollution and apathy.

As architects, we are often required to consider the potential impact of graffiti and its brainless, clumsy and brutal little cousin, tagging, on our buildings. Despite finding the latter entirely without merit, we have often regarded good graffiti as an enrichening celebration of the involvement we have with our public spaces. Artists like Banksy, Invader and Pixnit are all artists who use(d) graffiti in a positive manner, contributing to rather than detracting from public space. With Ossario, Orion has introduced a clever and intriguing dynamic to this discourse, not only passing judgement on urban pollution, but also investigating many ideas central to the practice of graffiti itself – those of permanence, legality and artistic value.

Traffic light health warnings

What are they?

Discussed this morning on talkback radio, the Obesity Policy Coalition is lobbying government to introduce regulations that would require traffic light labels on the front of food packaging and fast food menus. A red traffic light label would mean high levels of sugars, fats or salt, an orange label would mean medium levels and a green label low levels. This is in response to a study performed by the group into the effect packaging has on parents’ buying habits. According to the study, parents are twice as likely to buy a product that has healthy-sounding words on its package like “nutrients” or “fibre” and two a half times as likely if the product is also endorsed by a sports star.

What do we think?

This is yet another example of the Australian Nanny State trying to regulate positive lifestyle decisions into its populace. Rather than trusting parents to be capable of ignoring marketing hyperbole, the very idea of the traffic light labels reveals the implicit expectation that parents are too stupid to look after the best interests of their own children.

So what if an unhealthy food is backed by a sports star or a cereal box has the word “fibre” splashed across its front? We live in the information age, one where parents must learn to do what their children have been doing from the moment they learned to pick up a computer mouse: to filter information. Food packaging already lists its contents’ key nutrient indicators; do we really need them to also be festooned with garish traffic lights that render in lowest-common-denominator graphic format what anyone with half a brain can already learn just by reading the back of the box?