Arthur H. Robinson

Arthur H. Robinson (January 5, 1915October 10, 2004) was an American geographer and cartographer, who was professor in the Geography Department at the University of Wisconsin in Madison from 1947 until he retired in 1980. He was a prolific writer and influential philosopher on cartography, and one of his most notable accomplishments is the Robinson projection in 1961.


  • The author took the only course in cartography available to him in 1937; it must have been fairly typical of the few being offered in America: lectures based largely on personal experiences were supplemented by a relatively few assigned readings, and by Deetz and Adam’s Elements of Map Projection. No textbook was used because there was none in English.
Robinson projection of the world.
  • 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... [only then I] figure out the mathematical formula to produce that effect.
  • Take an orange and draw something on it -- say, a human face. Now carefully remove the peel, trying to keep it in one piece, and flatten it against your kitchen table. You'll see that in making a two-dimensional object out of a round one, something has to give. Either the face gets distorted and looks all 'mushed out,' or in flattening the peel, it breaks into segments, dividing the face as well into several parts. A cartographer chooses between a series of those kind of lesser-of-two-evils alternatives.
    • Robinson (1989) in Chicago Tribune; As cited in: Myrna Oliver (2004) "Arthur H. Robinson, 89; Cartographer Hailed for Map's Elliptical Design: Obituaries" in: Los Angeles Times. November 17, 2004
  • Happiest day of my life, was when the Defense Department took down its Mercator... I started learning how to make maps while on an Army payroll. So getting to see mine in the Pentagon, flanked by generals, is a little like being a prophet who is finally honored by his hometown.
    • Robinson (1989) in Chicago Tribune; As cited in: Myrna Oliver (2004)
  • I decided there ought to be another way of balancing out the various distortions without doing it mathematically.
    • Robinson (1990) in The Times; As cited in: Myrna Oliver (2004): About the development of the Robinson projection.

The Look of Maps (1952)Edit

Arthur Howard Robinson (1952/1966) The look of maps: an examination of cartographic design University of Wisconsin Press.

  • While doing illustrative work for Roderick Peattie, from him I learned the value of the unorthodox.
    • p. vii
  • The development of design principles based on objective visual tests, experience, and logic; the pursuit of research in the physiological and psychological effects of color; and investigations in perceptibility and readability in typography are being carried on in other fields... such a movement in cartography cannot fail to materialize
    • p. 13-14; As cited in: Clifford H. Wood, C. Peter Keller (1996) Cartographic design: theoretical and practical perspectives. p. 21
  • If we then make the obvious assumption that the content of a map is appropriate to its purpose, there yet remains the equally significant evaluation of the visual methods employed to convey that content.
    • p. 15
  • The assumption that effective cartographic technique and its evaluation is based in part on some subjective artistic or aesthetic sense on the part of the cartographer and map reader is somewhat disconcerting. For example, E. Raisz claims that the “effective use of lines or colors requires artistic judgment,” and J.K. Wright explains that the suitability of a symbol “depends on the map maker's taste and sense of harmony.” Throughout the literature there are numerous similar assertions regarding the assumed subjective aesthetic and artistic content of cartography.
    • p. 16; as cited in: Kirk Patrick Goldsberry (2007) Real-time Traffic Maps. p. 23
  • There is also a considerable tendency to define the subject as a kind of meeting place of science and art. This is exemplified by Eckert. He pleads for artistic imagination and intuition in cartographic portrayal and claims that the inter-action of such talents with scientific geography produces the aesthetic map. There is no question about the importance of imagination and new ideas, but it is equally important that significant processes be objectively investigated, whether it be the visual consumption of a graphic technique or a process in geomorphology. It can perhaps best be approached by a comparison of the aims, techniques involved, and the results accomplished by each activity
    • p. 17; as cited in: Kirk Patrick Goldsberry (2007) Real-time Traffic Maps. p. 23-24
  • Most scientific cartography is concerned with the dissemination of spatial knowledge.
    • p. 17
  • Until such time as logic and objective research concerning the relative efficiency of the various possibilities is undertaken, the cartographer can but rely on the experience and direction of the artist.
    • p. 70

Elements of Cartography (1953)Edit

  • Maps enable man to rise, so to speak, above his immediate range of vision, and contemplate the salient features of larger areas.
    • p. 1; A cited in: Les Roberts (2012) Mapping Cultures. p. 142
  • Today most maps are printed by lithography.
    • 1978, p. 347
  • The design process involves a series of operations. In map design, it is convenient to break this sequence into three stages. In the first stage, you draw heavily on imagination and creativity. You think of various graphic possibilities, consider alternative ways...
    • p. 318
  • Good design looks right. It is simple (clear and uncomplicated). Good design is also elegant, and does not look contrived. A map should be aesthetically pleasing, thought provoking, and communicative
    • p. 318

About Arthur H. RobinsonEdit

  • Two developments of the past four decades played crucial roles in establishing a research agenda for the study of map symbolization and design. The first was Arthur H. Robinson's dissertation (published as The Look of Maps in 1952), with its call for objective research... Robinson (1952) pointed out some limits to approaching map symbolization and design from a purely artistic viewpoint, as he suggested was the guiding perspective at the time. Maps, like buildings that are designed primarily for artistic impact, are often not functional... Robinson (1952) argued that treating maps as art can lead to "arbitrary and capricious" decisions. He saw only two alternatives: either standardize everything so that no confusion can result about the meaning of symbols, or study and analyze characteristics of perception as they apply to maps so that symbolization and design decisions can be based on "objective" rules...
    Robinson's dissertation, then, signaled the beginning of a more objective approach to map symbolization and design based on testing the effectiveness of alternatives, an approach that followed the positivist model of physical science. In his dissertation, Robinson cited several aspects of cartographic method for which he felt more objective guidelines were required (e.g., lettering, color, and map design). He also suggested that this objective look at cartographic methods should begin by considering the limitations of human perception. One goal he proposed was identification of the "least practical differences" in map symbols (e.g., the smallest difference in lettering size that would be noticeable to most readers).
    • Alan MacEachren (1995) How maps work: representation, visualization, and design. p. 2-3
  • In a career of teaching, writing and research, Dr. Robinson always found time, as mapmakers have for centuries, to look for the best possible solution to cartography's frustrating "Greenland problem." On maps drawn according to the most familiar projection, devised by Gerardus Mercator in the 16th century, Greenland appears to be about the size of South America, though it is actually no larger than Mexico.
    The distortion is a result of the compromises inherent in representing a sphere on a flat piece of paper. If the shapes of land masses are correct, the sizes will be distorted, and vice versa. If lower latitudes are close to reality on maps, then the polar regions will be grossly misshaped.
    In 1963, Dr. Robinson devised his own map projection...

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Last modified on 14 May 2013, at 10:31