Why is North Up?

How Flipping Your Perspective Can Lead to Creative Success

Ever since we began to document lands outside of our own, we have known but one map: the Mercator projection. North is up. South is down. Europe is more or less in the center.

Here’s the thing about this map, though: it’s incorrect. As they say, mapmaking is in the eye of the cartographer, and the maps we have been educated on for centuries tell a story, and a biased one at that. Look at Africa for instance, as compared to the rest of the world. Looking at this map, how could you know that the USA could fit into the African continent at least three times over? And that the USA, India, China, and Japan, and all of Europe could fit comfortably into its spacious lands?

This is what happens when we take a globular surface (the Earth) and fit it into a neat, rectangular map. Like all manmade things, maps inherently hold a bias, and our maps show the drastic effects of eurocentrism on the way we see our world.

Another way that prevailing ideas of geography exist is in the very idea of direction. In all of our accepted maps, north points up. The north pole is at the top of the world, and the south pole is at the bottom. But why is this? There is no scientific reason that one pole should be considered “up” and one “down.” Back in ancient times, cartographers would orient maps based on which way rivers were flowing or based on the direction in which the sun rose or set. In 1979, Stuart MacArthur flipped our perspective of the world map upside down, placing Australia, the Down Under, up top. It was the first modern “south-up” map, and it highlighted the importance of new perspectives on the way we see the world. MacArthur’s Universal Corrective Map is not wrong in any scientific way, so why is it not as accepted as the others?

The Crucible of Creativity: Diversity of Perspectives

The point of this brief history lesson is to underline the importance of a fresh perspective in our creative strategies. It is easy to be bogged down by routine, simplicity, and even success. But just like the map, too much of something can be harmful.

Allow me to elaborate. Because the projections of the Mercator map were distorted, travel times by land and sea were distorted as well. So, then the Gall-Peters projection came along to make coordinates and distances and sizes finally accurate. But even that map had some problems. The shapes of the continents were distorted, for one, and because Europe was still prominently in the center, islands in the Pacific are cut off by the right edge of the map and plastered haphazardly onto the left half. Is this fair? Do children growing up in Polynesia not deserve to be front and center in a map? Why are their perspectives placed behind European egocentrism?

The history behind why these maps are the way they are has a lot to do with colonization, empiricism, and ethnocentrism, but the underlying moral is about pushing the status quo, even if the status quo is widely accepted. For true diversity of thought, to inch away from our habits and practices, we need different perspectives. Fresh perspectives.

The status quo can be a hard thing to break, or even identify, because it’s in place for a reason. But just like the Mercator map, the status quo might not be correct, and it may even be harmful (whether it harms navigators crossing the Pacific… or leads to tone-deaf ads that blatantly offend people). That’s why breaking norms is beneficial. It helps to upend the accepted narrative and makes more room for different stories to be told and different perspectives to be heard.

Marketing: The Pursuit of Perspective

According to the American Marketing Association, marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large. In other words, marketing, by its very nature, requires communicating to diverse listeners. To accurately tailor campaigns, to focus our marketing, to be successful, we need to be able to connect with extremely diverse populations. This is where we need help from people who are different than us. Not just other marketers, but artists, scientists, bankers, poets, cashiers, manufacturers, architects — anyone with different life experiences.

However, we can’t ever represent all perspectives. As Hannah Gadsby points out in her Netflix special Nanette, even though Picasso was able to represent multiple perspectives with the technique of cubism, “he assumed he could represent all of the perspectives,” which is never truly possible. We will never be able to see through everyone’s eyes in any endeavor, whether we’re a historian or a marketer. But that doesn’t mean we have to be blind and ignore different perspectives. Diversity in thought, race, and experience enriches life, and as a business, being able to use that to our advantage will help us break routines and find even more success than before. Without input from others who don’t look like us and think like us, we will inevitably miss something — because we see the world from a very limited point of view. Sometimes, all that takes is a fresh set of eyes. And other times?

We need to flip the whole map upside down.

Think Outside the Map

So how do you encourage people to think “outside the north-up map”? Part of the solution can be addressed by hiring practices and procedures that encourage diverse candidates to apply and then work for your business. But another key part of the solution is creating an internal environment that enables creative risk-taking. This article from Quill offers practical advice to businesses looking to improve diversity of thinking.

Cobalt-60 is the name of our blog, an online digest dedicated to the art and science of communications. (It’s also an isotope of the element cobalt.)

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