Robinson Map Projection

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The problem with map projections (and the reason for their variety) is that it is extremely difficult to portray the Earth’s curving 3D surface on a flat 2D map surface; some distortion is unavoidable.

Through various map projections, numerous geographers throughout history have attempted to address the distortion issue. The Robinson projection, which shows the entire world at once and compromises both area and angles, is an illustration of a pseudocylindrical projection.

In the Robinson map projection, the latitude lines are horizontally straight but the longitudinal lines are curved. As you move away from the map’s central meridian, the lines of longitude are shown as nonparallel, progressively curved lines.

A map of the world with the ocean in blue and the land masses shaded to replicated vegetation for the area.  The world is covered in white graticule lines.
The Robinson map projection is a pseudocylindrical projection. Map: Caitlin Dempsey, Natural Earth data.

A Compromise Map Projection

The Robinson map projection is what is known as a compromise map projection. This means that, while shapes, areas, distances, directions, and angles are all warped, the level of map distortion is quite modest across the majority of the map.

Area in the Robinson map projection increases with latitude but not with longitude.

A Robinson world map with circles showing how the poles are more distorted than by the Equator.
A Tissox matrix overlaid onto a world map using the Robinson Projection. Distortion is more prominent towards the poles as compared to the Equator. Map: Caitlin Dempsey, Natural Earth data.

An “Artistic” Map Projection

In 1961, Arthur H. Robinson created the Robinson Projection, which was designed more to make global maps “look correct” than to exactly measure anything. Many popular maps, including those from the National Geographic Society and the Rand McNally series, have utilized this now-common projection.

Arthur Robinson himself explains, “…I decided to go about it backwards. I started with a kind of artistic approach. I visualized the best-looking shapes and sizes. I worked with the variables until it got to the point where, if I changed one of them, it didn’t get any better. Then I figured out the mathematical formula to produce that effect. Most mapmakers start with the mathematics.”

Robinson originally called this map projection orthophanic which means “right appearing”. The name never stuck with this map projection.

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