The Robinson projection is a map of the entire world that shows every landmass and continent all at once. It was created specifically in an attempt to find a compromise between the problem of using a globe as a reference or a flat image. It was created in 1963 after an appeal from the Rand McNally company by Arthur H. Robinson.
The National Geographic Society first began to use the Robinson projection for general purposes in 1988. It abandoned this selection in favor of the Winkel tripel projection about a decade later because of the way land masses go through distortion with this option. There are significant shrinkages that occur for the continents as they get near the poles, and this impacts Greenland significantly.
Robinson stated in a 1988 interview with the New York Times that he decided to take a backward approach to the design of this projection. He visualized looking at sizes and shapes and then worked with the variables until he got to the point where changing one didn’t make things any better. That’s when he said that he figured out the mathematical formula to produce a beneficial effect.
Several advantages and disadvantages of the Robinson projection are worth taking into consideration.
List of the Advantages of the Robinson Projection
1. Almost everything is accurately represented on the projection.
The Robinson projection was favorable because it produced a map where everything was accurately represented except at the extreme areas along its edges. Even with the inaccuracies that are present, the mathematics of the landmasses still offer accurate representations for the average person. That was an advantage at the time when most other projections were either based on flat geography or a gross misrepresentation along the various meridian points.
2. It replicates elements of a sphere to the average viewer.
The issue with other projections is that they don’t provide a realistic perspective of what our planet looks like from a two-dimensional perspective. When we look at a flat map with realistic imagery of the landmasses, then distortion of the latitude and longitude must occur. Global projections require us to look at the continents in ways that feel unnatural from an outside perspective.
The Robinson projection creates an effect that makes the viewer feel like they are looking at the planet from a natural point of view. Although this design creates distortion in the extremes, the amount of realism offered is much higher.
3. The Robinson projection minimizes distortion throughout most of the map.
Although the Robinson projection is not conformal, the shapes that you can find within about 45° either north or south of the equator are generally represented with accuracy. You will also experience this benefit when you look at items that are within 45° of the map’s central meridian. That means you can look directly at this tool in its center to see a highly representative figure of our planet, and then move your way from there to get an accurate visual representation as if you are looking at it from a distance.
4. The Robinson projection uses normal aspects.
When you look at the continents on the Robinson projection, then the boundaries of each one looks consistent in aspect to what they are in real life. The only issue from a visualization standpoint involves the compression of landmasses near the poles and along the edge of each side. That means New Zealand features a challenging placement in the lower right-hand quadrant of the map, but the placement of Africa, Asia, and the other major continents is quite accurate.
Robinson even created the major bodies of water for each continent to be on display with his projection. You can see the Great Lakes and the Great Salt Lake in North America, along with several more in Africa, Europe, and Asia with this map.
5. The visualization of the projection works well at any scale.
When you create large versions of a Robinson projection, then the consistency of the visualization is the same as it is for smaller maps. Because the curvature and distortion are less extreme in the central part of the map, you receive a similar result at any size. This advantage is particularly useful from an educational standpoint because it can get printed in a book the same way it looks when on display at the front of a classroom.
6. Country borders are easily placed on the Robinson projection.
The Robinson projection is useful from a topography standpoint and from a nation-recognition instructional view. Today’s map makers can easily add the borders of countries onto this visualization because the accuracy of the continents is so high. Additional lines in the ocean can indicate the presence of island nations, even if they are difficult to see on small representations. That means everything is truer to size, even if there are some distortions along the south pole that make Antarctica seem much bigger than its actual size.
7. It is a projection that has wide availability.
After National Geographic began using the Robinson projection for their global map needs, its use began to take off in classrooms around the world. It eliminates the visualization issues that come with the flat Mercator perspective that was first created in 1569 for navigation purposes. It also eliminates the duplication along the edges were Alaska appears in both sections, as well as a small part of Russia.
List of the Disadvantages of the Robinson Projection
1. Distortions exist on the edges of the map.
Although publications had problems with the amount of distortion that occurs at the poles of the Robinson projection, there are also issues to consider at the edge of the map. The meridians curve gently with this design, avoiding extremes, but stretching the ends into long lines instead of leaving them as points of reference. That’s because the goal of the map was to create a pseudo-cylindrical visualization. It served the needs of Rand McNally at the time, even if it grew out of favor by the turn of the century.
2. It offers limited benefits for navigation.
The primary purpose of the Robinson projection is to create a visually appealing map of the entire world. Because it is a compromise visualization, it does not eliminate every type of distortion. The goal is to keep the levels of all distortions relatively low over the majority of the map. That means it has relatively little value for navigation or any other purpose beyond basic instruction. It is for this reason that many institutions are moving away from it and going with something newer or more traditional.
The Robinson projection served a specific need at a particular time in our history. It met the needs of a business from a commercialization point of view.
3. The Robinson projection is not equidistant.
The Robinson projection is not an equidistant map. That means there are no points from which all distances are shown accurately on it. You cannot pick out one specific area on this representation to determine exact mileage. That means it is useful in the identification of continents, oceans, and other significant landmarks. Trying to find specific islands or country borders is virtually impossible with this tool.
4. It does not provide azimuthal support.
This disadvantage of the Robinson projection means that there is no point or points on the map from which all directions receive accurate representation. Even if you direct your attention to one of the poles, your movements south follow a curvature instead of a direct line because of the distortion that is in play. That means you can get a generalized idea of where to go when you want to travel, but the specifics of direction are somewhat modified to improve the visualization of this tool.
5. The projection suffers from compression in severe ways.
The Robinson projection does not provide equivalence. Several sections of the map suffer from an extensive amount of compression. This issue impacts Australia, Greenland, parts of Russia, the northern part of Canada, Alaska, the southern portion of South America, and Antarctica. Despite the fact that the representation is essentially secant, with its lines of tangency running along the 38° lines of latitude, it creates visual misrepresentations when compared to the actual components found on our planet.
6. The placement of the central meridian creates issues with this project.
Robinson projections create different visualizations based on the placement of the central meridian. Although most of the maps place this component through the center of Africa, any variation of it will change how the projection looks. That means the instructional quality of each map must be taken individually instead of looking at the entirety of the design. No other projection deals with this problem because they use more of a mathematical approach and this one prefers visualization.
When Robinson first created his map, he called it the “orthophanic projection,” which means “right appearing.” It would be a name that never caught on. Most people associate this effort directly with its creator.
The Robinson projection is quite unique. Unlike all of the other ones created at the time, he did not develop this map by creating new geometric formulas to convert latitude and longitude coordinates. It came about through a series of attempts using computer simulations to develop tables that would allow cartographers to look up how far above or below the equator a specific line of latitude would be.
No other projection uses this approach to build a map still today. That’s why the advantages and disadvantages of the Robinson projection stand strong, even if its use has fallen out of favor in recent years.
Brandon Miller has a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin. He is a seasoned writer who has written over one hundred articles, which have been read by over 500,000 people. If you have any comments or concerns about this blog post, then please contact the Green Garage team here.