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Insights & Trends 2 min read

Why do maps show north at the top?

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You can go to any corner of the Earth, even to space, and maps will still point north — but what is the reason?

If, like most of us, you're a daily map user, you have probably noticed that each time you open your mapping app, it's facing north. 

And although it seems random, the convention of the northward orientation of maps is more than just a tradition. It ensures that maps remain accessible and reliable tools for everyone who is trying to navigate the world.

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Pole position

In ancient times, many people used stars to help track their journey, the most dependable being the North Star. Then, around 200 BC, China's Han Dynasty invented the magnetic compass using lodestone, a naturally magnetized ore of iron that aligns itself in a north-south direction toward Earth's poles (it should be said, however, that these first iterations were known as "south-pointing stones"). 

Over the course of the next thousand years, the technology spread to the Arab world and Europe. The compass played a crucial role in navigation during the Age of Exploration, enabling voyages of discovery and trade routes across the seas.

The early Chinese compass was not like the modern magnetic compass we are familiar with today, which uses a magnetized needle to point north.

By aligning maps with the north at the top, mapmakers ensured that they matched the orientation of compasses commonly used for navigation.

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But why north?

By facing north, maps provide a consistent reference point for orientation, which makes it easier to identify points of interest, especially in heavily populated regions. 

The Northern Hemisphere is home to a substantial majority of the world's population (approximately 87%) and pointing maps to the north ensures that users can easily find their way no matter where they are.

UniMap Map Object Model Graphic Visualization

Universal language

By adopting a standardized northward orientation, maps become universally understandable and interpretable. 

Whether you are in Tokyo, London, or Buenos Aires, the convention north-pointing maps make it easy to figure out where you are and navigate the space around you.

So next time you unfold a map or explore it on your smart device, remember there is a good reason it always points north.

Maja Stefanovic

Maja Stefanovic

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