The idea that north is “up” and south is “down” is a human construction, not a natural one. Say you’re driving from New York to Connecticut for the holidays. You tell an inquiring friend, “We’re going up there this week”—even though the fact that Connecticut is north of New York does not make it geographically “up.”
We think of such regions as north because the conventional map is oriented that way, but in fact early Egyptian maps put the east on top, presumably because that’s the direction from which the sun rises. Meanwhile, early Muslim maps usually had a south-up orientation—an orientation that has in more modern times taken on a political meaning, as the common north-up map is a blatant example of Eurocentrism.
One of the more beautiful south-up, or upside down, maps comes from Angus Hyland, a partner in the London office of the design firm Pentagram. Last year, Hyland made an impeccable, ice-blue version for the firm’s anticipated annual Christmas card. This year, he turned the map into an online quiz and interactive site. The site takes countries and bodies of water out of context, zooms in too close, asks you to name cities of unnamed countries, and otherwise flips, switches, and distorts things. The game makes guessing cities and countries difficult for even the most boastful of geography and trivia nerds. In other words, it’s the perfect game to break out with your know-it-all family members over the holiday.
According to a Pentagram blog post, the Up Side Down map project is designed to call into question “the orthodoxy of the world map; itself a consequence of European explorers eager to place themselves at the centre of the earth.” The earth in the quiz has no center: You might be asked to name Japan from three options of archipelagos, or to label the Caspian Sea out of a lineup that includes the Red Sea and the Black Sea. The map disorients you so the questions are harder, but it also makes the salient point that all map orientations are essentially arbitrary. Think of the game as the south-up map for the age of apps:
The booklet and quiz mischievously play with the rigidity of the commonly accepted world map, which is increasingly at odds with modern GPS software that allows us to manipulate the space around us with a pinch of our fingers.
The Up Side Down map quiz is both fun and infuriating. But if you can stoke your family’s competitiveness while also inspiring a lesson in shifting perspectives, seems like a win-win to me (even if you lose).
[All Photos: via Pentagram]