The Power of the Polar Projection, Part Two

To Part One

At the end of Part One, I wrote that there is one polar projection that shows up all around the world and which you’ve almost certainly seen many times. The reason you almost certainly can’t think of it right now is because it’s never presented as a map, but as a symbol instead.

In June 1945, delegates from all the allied countries met in San Francisco to make the “United Nations,” a term that the wartime Allies had been using in political declarations since 1942, into a real international organization. 850 delegates from forty nations attended, along with roughly 3,500 staff and advisers.

As the host country the United States was responsible for all logistics, which included a range of maps, charts, displays, certificates, maps, and guides to be used by staff and delegates. The Office of Strategic Services’ Presentation Branch, a team of graphic and industrial designers who had been working on various exhibit and display issues for the armed services since 1941, was drafted to assist the State Department with creating these materials. It’s a little confusing to try and trace exactly who did what in the San Francisco design work, but it seems that the team was led by Oliver Lincoln Lindquist. Also involved was Donal McLaughlin, who did the first pass on the design of a lapel pin to identify the delegates.

McLaughlin’s New York Times obituary describes some of his first, rejected designs:

A globe surrounded by chains intended to represent nations linked in peace. “Linked in peace, but also a world in chains,” Mr. McLaughlin noted. Another image showed a chimneylike brick structure, bound by the “mortar of cooperation,” with an olive branch poking out. “Could be a trademark for the Structural Clay Products Institute,” Mr. McLaughlin wrote.

We can probably be grateful that none of these made the cut. What did get used what what McLaughlin, in an interview, described as ““an azimuthally equidistant projection showing all the countries in one circle.” Aside from realigning the map so that the US was no longer centred, the design adopted as the UN emblem was almost identical.

Official UN emblem, from the website of the UN Dag Hammarskjöld Library

Official UN emblem, from the website of the UN Dag Hammarskjöld Library

Presumably, McLaughlin had seen some of Harrison’s polar projection maps: they were in very popular publications. But, ironically enough, the reason he was able to use the polar projection as the basis for the UN emblem was because Harrison and others like him had failed to really shake the public conception of what constituted a “proper” map. If the polar projection had been instantly recognizable as a map, the emblem would read as obvious or even twee. “Of course, a map of nations united for the United Nations.” But, without that instant familiarity, the UN emblem is merely worldly – a symbol for the world, not a direct representation of it. And that’s good too, because to have a recognizable map opens up all sorts of questions of representation. An azimuthal equidistant projection gives accurate distances and directions, but only from the centre point. Moreover, it distorts both size and area the further one goes from the centre. So, while North America and Eurasia are reasonably undistorted, the southern hemisphere is not. S.W. Boggs loses once again.

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