There are millions of reasons to love The West Wing, especially in a literally insane election year. But for design nerds, these four minutes in which White House Press Secretary C.J. Cregg takes a meeting with the Cartographers for Social Equality might be the highlight of the series. It's probably the only pop culture explanation of how well and truly borked our world maps actually are:
Across the board, the Mercator projection of the Earth—which has been our baseline for world maps since the 16th century—skews the actual size of countries so they look bigger (and therefore, more important than they are) when they fall within the middle of the Northern Hemisphere. It's not just bad design, it has real geopolitical implications. For example, in most people's minds, Greenland is a much larger country than Australia. But the reality is that Australia dwarfs Greenland. Likewise, you probably think Africa and North America are roughly the same size, but Africa can swallow all of North America and Greenland with room for all of Western Europe to spare. And so on.
Inspired by the aforementioned episode of The West Wing, James Talmage and Damon Maneice created The True Size. The web app lets you drag-and-drop different countries on a world map and see how they shrink or grow on a standard Mercator Projection map. It's a simple tool, but an eye-opening one that can be quickly used to show just how skewed our maps really are.
So what's the alternative to Mercator Projection? There are a number of alternatives, but the truth is, all 2-D maps are going to be inaccurate in one way or another, because there's no 100% accurate way to take the surface of a sphere and map it to a plane without distortion. For example, an Albers projection is superior to Mercator Projection in that it shows sizes accurately, but at the expense of distorting shapes.
That's why the best visualization of the world is always going to be something 3-D, like a globe. Failing that, all we can do is open our minds—and be aware that objects in maps, like rear view mirrors, are often larger than they appear.