Imagined Cartography

Eden Short

World creation is an immersive creative experience where the designer is a world architect who embodies a variety of roles in an attempt to create not just the back-story of a world, but also the culture within it. An exhilarating, challenging, and exhaustive task; everything must make ‘sense’ within the world, yet nothing does due to its fictional nature. This alternative place is the result of imagination and sheer will to make it real.

I am currently completing my Graphic Design Honours year at AUT. This involves a practice-led research project that is developed throughout the year in which an 8000 word exegesis is accompanied by a body of practical work. The project focuses on the creation of a fictional world that I’ve called UNA, and uses elements of totalitarianism, cartography, and graphic design communicated though a series of designed artefacts. These artefacts are government-issued, and embody the political ideals and values of totalitarian regimes such as a world map, atlas, and citizen documents. The political party UNA currently governs the world created in the project, controlling the entire planet through a range of provinces. The party’s focus is on destroying barriers of status and gender inequality, and to implement standardisation within global distribution, so all individuals can share and none are left without.

In regards to the project, world building is a dense task in which elements such as history, context, and language play an invaluable role by informing the design and content. Thus, before the design can even begin, the historical context of the world must be formed in order to create an authentic and credible outcome. This is achieved when the viewer can suspend their disbelief; the point at which the viewer, through the construction of the narrative, allows themselves to accept things that go beyond logic i.e. they take an alternate world as reality. Therefore, if there is enough truth within the fictional realm, it is believable within the given context. This can be further enhanced in the exhibition of the artefacts, displaying them as ‘true’, a phenomenon defined as documentary fiction. This is an oxymoron used in film and literature where something displays itself as truth when in fact it is not, giving the viewer the illusion of authenticity in a format they instinctively trust. 

Within my project, totalitarianism serves as a base from which to develop my world. Totalitarianism is unique in that barriers between state and society are blurred, and political ideology touches all aspects within the society, thus all must serve it. A defining feature of totalitarianism is the monopoly of mass media, where the party can chose what to propagate and what to censor. As totalitarianism rose in the early twentieth century, so did the development of mass communication, which is a large factor of totalitarianism’s initial success. An example of this was Hitler’s early recognition that a strong graphic symbol and identity was key to the dissemination of the movement as an abstract representation of the party’s doctrine. Within these societies, propaganda was a tool of social manipulation designed to educate the public on both the status quo and the values they should live by. This is enforced through repetition, especially of simple symbols, slogans, and logos.

The very essence of my project is the relationship between power and cartography, and the extremism of totalitarian power communicates this best. With regards to my practice as a graphic designer this is especially relevant, largely due to totalitarian governments having a strong adherence to a specific design style and state branding. Throughout UNA’s development all must emulate this political ideology to be authentic to this totalitarian power structure. Thus whilst creating the world I am not the ruler, but am as constrained by the political ideology as the citizens within it. Although technically creating the world, through the construction it feels more like a discovery.  

There is a strong research foundation in past totalitarian societies and fiction as the back-story and history for UNA is developed. By identifying common signifiers of the political system, UNA is developed to have valid points of informed difference. An example of this is terroristic police control, a common factor in totalitarian governments yet is not found within UNA. Alternatively the world is controlled and kept in order through rigid control of food and resources. This is due to the particularly harsh weather conditions that ensure supplies are crucial for cities, towns, and their citizens to survive through seasonal changes.

Throughout the continual development of the historical outline for UNA, all decision making must be meticulously recorded and stored in the same place in order to keep all current ideas coherent and arranged. Known as a ‘world bible’, this is where the documentation of the elaborate back-story occurs, often allowing the depth needed to make an imagined world feel possible. Taking an open-plan approach, a wall in the Honours studio is saturated with UNA’s documentation, acting as a window into this fictional world. Not only did it keep track of my thought processes, but also was especially helpful when guiding others through UNA, as I was not just explaining but showing.

World building makes for a complex project, with the creator becoming the sole guide to this alternative realm. This world creation process can be quite an isolating experience, thus when introducing others who are new to the realm it can be difficult to communicate ideas and receive helpful critique. These critics must also be willing to accept your reality in order to generate rich discussion and feedback. In the project, especially when seeking critique, the focus was on UNA’s structure and functionality rather than aesthetics. This was vital in finding the gaps of knowledge and inconsistencies within the world, ensuring the integrity of the project. This idea sharing generated rich discussion, in which nearly every decision about UNA was questioned, considered, and critiqued. Although sometimes painful, this ensured the project’s authenticity and integrity. Not only did it solidify my ideas, the process also initiated new concepts. The continual discussion of UNA with others during the development process meant that they became immersed in the world alongside me, familiar with the peculiarities of the fictional realm. 

This discussion method was a large factor in the development of the ‘birth document’ for UNA, largely due to the underlying context of a human-breeding program designed to control the population within the world. Attempting to establish this over some time, I thought that I had finally reached a conclusion. However once talking through the idea with another student, the current concept was found to be inconsistent and dubious. This feedback and exchanging of ideas built a fully coherent design program that I could then transfer into the design of the artefacts.  Alternative points of view and questioning proved invaluable to the final outcome.

As the project’s background becomes more developed and stable, the designs are no longer following a strict design convention; rather they are morphing to create a new style unique to UNA’s society. The historical context and content informs the function of the design, thus the form. As the logo is core to nation branding, it is a central design, as all UNA conventions become a part of the standardised aesthetic. Examples of this are the dimensions of each artefact, designed within the ratio of the logo, and the national UNA monotype grid system, based upon the logo shapes. This is further developed through the watermarking of official citizen identification documents to aid in making them difficult to forge.

The method of watermarking later evolved into a tracking system; giving the UNA government the ability track the location of the holder in the towns and cities. Transferring this onto the map, the watermark also became an additional signifier of a government issued artefact. As the primary method of communicating UNA is the world map, this has been continuously developed throughout the project. To bring emphasis to Unehinge Province, the power-base of UNA, it is placed centrally in the top section of the map to provide hierarchy. As the ovals overlap on the rectangle map, Unehinge Province is shown on both sections, making it appear bigger and thus stronger. All main trading routes head to Unehinge, and in the map it has the strongest colour symbolizing its dominant power. In every aspect of the design, each decision is made to make UNA appear to be the strongest, most prosperous nation, legitimising its inhabitants’ leadership in any way possible. This approach to the design ensures the integrity of the world, thus contributing to its believability.

As totalitarian ideology is so powerfully embedded into every aspect of the society, it provides a clear and direct way to communicate power, the status quo, and core ideals. These ideals are established and maintained through cartography and graphic design. Presenting the artefacts as genuinely from UNA allows for more of the historical context and content to be communicated. Within this approach to world creation the emphasis on creating the historical background for UNA has been invaluable to the credibility of the project. Although a large amount of this in isolation is difficult to discern, once pulled together it creates a distinct otherness that is UNA. Through engagement and discussion with other people, alternative ideas were exchanged, improving the world’s coherence.

Ultimately, throughout the world creation process, more time is spent within the fictional world than the real. Once the artefacts are created they assume the role of communicating the world as you forfeit your role as gate-keeper to the realm. However, it is never truly complete as the development is seemingly infinite – yet ultimately rewarding in its continuous challenges.