Between the Lines

Between the Lines

Strange Maps author Frank Jacobs shares his tips on how to be a critical map reader and get more information out of every map you see.


4 - 12


Sociology, Arts and Music, Geography

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If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a map may be worth a million. Maps and photographs blur the line between information and art. They both document the world and present it in a visually striking way.

Unlike photographs, however, no map can claim to be a direct copy of something real.

Every map is shaped by the viewpoint and the choices of the person who made it. On top of that, every person who reads a map will interpret it differently. Our interpretations of maps are influenced just as much by our perceptions and personal experiences as by what is actually on the page. For this reason, understanding subjectivity—the way in which what we perceive is influenced by our feelings and experiences—has become an important part of cartography, or mapmaking.

Frank Jacobs has seen his share of subjective maps. Since 2006, he has managed the Strange Maps blog, which features maps "too strange for the school atlas." Each blog entry dissects the stories told—and sometimes hidden—by the featured map.

Jacobs' collection includes unusual maps of all types. He has featured everything from ancient maps on cave walls to satellite maps, which produce images through remote sensing.

Subjectivity and personal interpretation—the way we explain something to ourselves—both play huge roles in analyzing each map.

People Have a Deep Connection to Maps

People have a close relationship with maps, Jacobs said. "That's partly why we see things like accidental maps. People see maps in spots of paint on the sidewalk, or they empty their coffee and in the bottom of the cup, they see Africa. It's almost like seeing Jesus on a piece of toast—people see the shapes of countries in all kinds of objects."

Jacobs said the long history of cartography has led people to trust maps as a source of information about the world.

We have a very strong and deep connection to maps, he said. "As a species, we made maps even before we invented writing. It's our first language." We seem to have an innate ability—an ability we are born with—"to locate ourselves in space and to transfer that knowledge to and from maps."

No matter how fundamental the human relationship to cartography may be, no map can present a completely unbiased picture of the world.

"A map is always a bit of a lie because there is always something that is not on the map," Jacobs said. "For instance, the typical map is flat while the world is round—there's already one whole dimension that's missing. When you read a map, you're ingesting the point of view of the mapmaker. A map is not as blindly objective as a photograph; it's an artifact that has been crafted to tell you a story."

No category of maps exemplifies this better than maps used for political propaganda. Throughout history, maps have been used to shape public opinion in support of a particular political message.

"There's a great map that was published in Time magazine during the Cold War, and the title is 'Europe As Seen From Moscow.' The map is centered on Moscow, but the perspective is such that Western Europe on the horizon looks much smaller, and Eastern Europe, which was communist at the time, looks much larger," Jacobs said. In those years, some in the United States considered communist Russia a grave threat to Western Europe, he added. The map made it look as if Western Europe was overpowered by Eastern Europe and served to magnify the "imminent threat of communism."

How To Be a Critical Map Reader

So, how can you learn to see through the little white lies in every map? According to Jacobs, the first step to becoming a critical map reader is to always question the intentions of the mapmaker.

"The main question that you can ask with any map is, 'Why did someone make this? What's the story and who is telling it?'" Jacobs said. "Every map is an attempt to convince you of something—it's like an argument. It's in your best interest to know who is trying to convince you."

Beyond the decisions of individual cartographers, it is also important to question the accepted practices that have become common across almost all maps.

"The fundamentals of mapmaking are conventions, and these conventions were set by someone because they were convenient for that time and place," Jacobs said. "The fact that north is up and Europe is in the middle of most maps are just some of these conventions."

To start seeing beyond these conventions, take a look at maps that present the world differently—"upside-down," for example, or with Asia in the center. Maps like these offer different ways of understanding the world.

"Take any map that surprises you, that seems somehow 'strange.' Why does it stop you in your tracks? What is different about it? Can you relate why it attracts your attention to who made it, and to what purpose?" Jacobs said. "If cartography is the art of wrapping up a story in a map, then map reading is like a journey of discovery for that story."

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Ryan Schleeter
Proof Integrated Communications
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Sean P. O'Connor
Funded by
Lockheed Martin
National Geographic Society
Elaine Larson, National Geographic Society
Last Updated

November 3, 2023

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