Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Downside Up

To take Alan Fletcher's advice of 'thinking sideways' one step further, what happens if we think upside down? Whereas Fletcher applied this to design, anybody can apply it to anything.

Looking at The Ambassadors recently, I found myself studying the brilliantly detailed globe (see below) that you can see in the background. Being from Holbein's time, it wasn't exactly satellite accurate and as I figured out how it was oriented I started to think about the relevance of north, east, south and west, or the irrelevance.

Which way is north in space? None. And which way is up in space? You might say whichever way goes against gravity, but that would make 'down' finite - in other words, surely there's no 'up' or 'down' in space either.

So what does that mean about how we visualise space and our planet? Why do images of solar systems always present the planets on a horizontal plane? Think of a map - what we call the north pole is always found at the top - but magnetic forces have no sense of north/south so why are they treated as such? Have you looked at where you live on a map and, on a whim, decided to see what other places lie directly above/below? Absolutely meaningless when you think about it. It took humanity quite a while to accept that it wasn't central in the universe. It also took time to see that it was not even centre of the solar system, that the Sun did not revolve around Earth. By our sense of 'north, south, east and west' we are still putting ourselves in a central position in relation to the surrounding world.

Aren't our methods of orientation in someway detrimental to how we see the world? I'm not referring to location or co-ordinates, simply the idea of north, east, south, and west. These terms aren't just methods of direction - we attach our own ideas and feelings to them - e.g. I feel like going south would be the best way to escape, while north would be a hazardous journey.

I've added some screen shots below (without borders/labels) that show what I mean. Both of the last two images are of the same area - Europe - and both force us to look differently at the world. In the first, we can see more clearly how the UK's coastline resembles the edge of Scandinavia, and how France and Portugal jut out to create an enormous pincer. The second shows Italy to be the arm and pointing hand of the mainland - and the UK seems to share something in common with it - as if it used to be the opposite arm but broke off at some point.

Of course, all this is still meaningless in itself - but it destroys the ideas we originally had of these geographical areas, for the better. It reminds me of what a tutor at my uni said; if he and his colleague  were asked to draw a whale, he'd probably draw a big blue smiling smudge while his colleague would make a perfectly accurate and realistic drawing. It's all down to our understanding of things.

So, if you're ever tasked to draw Italy, go for an abstract portrayal and draw an out-stretched arm and pointing hand, and say that you see the world for what it is rather than what everyone else sees.

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