Yosra Gamal’s project for the Dubai Design Week Global Grad Show uses maps to alter our perceptions of society, history and geography. She explains how her research is changing the way we understand our world
Yosra Gamal has been collecting maps since she was young. She has always been fascinated by them: the way they condense our world – our geography, our nations, our borders and our topography – onto a simple piece of paper.
Gamal had a huge variety of maps, drafted all over the globe, each with its own design. But as she grew older she began to question the discrepancies in her collection. Beyond the design aspects, why were there so many variations? Surely they depicted the same place, the same territories?
The Flat World, Gamal’s project for the Global Grad Show, was born out of this interest. “I wanted to question the simple visual element of the line,” says Gamal. “Once it’s put on a map, it transforms into something that has so much value. People believe in its objectivity.”
Armed with this idea, she began her research: on history, politics, nations, and geography. Her focus was on the Arab region, an area to which she feels emotionally attached due to her Egyptian heritage, but also a place with complex borderlines.
Perception, she realised, dominates cartography. It is impossible to represent a spherical planet on a flat surface without some sort of distortion. During the 16th Century, the European cartographer Gerardus Mercator created a projection that placed the Northern hemisphere at the forefront of the map, distorting it so that the Europe dominated over the continents in the Southern Hemisphere.
This is still the template we use today: a quick browse through Google Maps today will still reveal Greenland to be the same size as South America, even though in reality it is eight times smaller. “The maps that we use every day are not accurate,” she says, insisting that this is what drove her project, to make people aware that the maps that we take for granted are not always objective.
Gamal also read official documents, treaties and world maps. Though some challenges arose as she attempted to understand the dense texts, she particularly struggled with trying to compare the written laws with the social realities we live every day. What we put on paper, she insists, is not always as simple as it seems.
A quick browse through Google Maps today will still reveal Greenland to be the same size as South America, even though in reality it is eight times smaller
“It was important to collect all of this in one place, to try and analyse it, and to put it in a context that makes you question it,” she says. “It’s also interesting to look at visually – information design is very important for me.” She created six simple maps of the Arab region, drawn digitally, and hung side-by-side for comparison. Each map depicts a different view of the same region, informed by Gamal’s research. One map, for example, is purely geographical, while another has borders based on historical events.
The aim is to make people aware of the discrepancies. “One thing that’s important about the design is that you can see it from all sides,” says Gamal, noting that this was to emphasise the importance of perception in cartography. “I didn’t dominate some part over the other, I just wanted the viewer to choose the side they wanted to be on.”
Despite the intricacies of her project, Gamal recognises an important distinction between The Flat World and many of the projects at the Global Grad Show, the innovation strand of Dubai Design Week, which showcases groundbreaking works from the world’s leading design schools. “I can’t really provide a solution,” she says. “This is such a big topic, and a solution shouldn't be driven from me or any single person, or any single group. It should be something that we think about collectively, that everyone questions.”
Her experience at the Global Grad Show has been immensely positive, as she has been inspired by other projects and viewers alike. “A lot of people encourage me to take it further. They want to have it online, somewhere, which is encouraging me to go further with it.”
A book, she claims, is also in the making, filled with her diverse research. The aim? For us to never look at the world in the same way again.