How Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion Map Tessellated The World

Buckminster Fuller applied his patented Dymaxion brand to all sorts of objects over the course of his career, from cars to buildings to entire cities. But one of the most useful and enduring applications? The Dymaxion World map, which unfolds the earth into a long string of shapes, like a carefully peeled orange.

2013 marks the map’s 70th birthday, and to celebrate, the Brooklyn-based Buckminster Fuller Institute launched Dymax Redux, competition to redesign updated versions of the map. The winners will be unveiled sometime this fall, but in the meantime, it's worth taking a look back at some of the awesomely tessellated Dymaxion spinoffs that already exist.

First, a bit of background. What makes the Dymaxion World map so enduring? It’s a brilliant mathematical object. Fuller’s projection bears far less distortion than other flat maps, like the Mercator projection or the Peters projection, and it divides up the globe into a contiguous surface without dividing any of its land masses. Because it isn’t a traditional “shadow” projection it’s not distorted on one axis or another, so you can read it from any orientation and rearrange its contents in any number of ways.

But it’s the Dymaxion’s distinctly optimistic point of view that makes it so unique. Patented at the end of World War II, it shows us all seven continents as a single archipelago, or "one island in one ocean.” It took him decades of tinkering to figure out the right projection, but it was important to him that we see the earth as a single, interconnected network. “For the layman, engrossed in belated, war-taught lessons in geography, the Dymaxion World map is a means by which he can see the whole world fairly and all at once,” explained LIFE magazine when it published the map in 1943. The writers at LIFE also found a way to rearrange the map to articulate a bit of wartime racism against Japan: "The ruthless logic of Jap imperialism is exposed by this layout,” the editors continued. “Their thinking strikes an obvious contrast to the landlubber geopolitics of their German allies.” Well then!

Fuller probably disapproved of the way LIFE twisted his map into something aggressive, but that’s a perfect example of how maps can become socio-political weapons—and why he thought we needed to retool them. Fuller intended the Dymaxion World map to serve as a tool for communication and collaboration between nations. “If you want to teach people a new way of thinking, don't bother trying to teach them,” he famously said. “Instead, give them a tool, the use of which will lead to new ways of thinking.”

Did the map lead to a new world order? Not exactly—but did lead to a revolution in mapping. More about Dymax Redux is here, but in the meantime, check out eight other interesting applications of Fuller's projection below.

How Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion Map Tessellated The World

A printable version of Fuller's "Airocean" World map that includes assembly instructions.

How Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion Map Tessellated The World

The Cryosphere, or a map of the world map arranged based on ice, snow, glaciers, permafrost and ice sheets, by Nordphil.

How Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion Map Tessellated The World

A map showing the distribution of 259 "critical infrastructures" in energy, agriculture, banking and finance, drinking water and other systems, via Domus.

How Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion Map Tessellated The World

Flight routes of the Dubai-based airline, Emirates, mapped using Fuller's projection. Via Axismaps.

How Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion Map Tessellated The World

Rehabstudio's Googlespiel, an interactive Dymaxion map built at Google Developer Day 2011.

How Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion Map Tessellated The World

A page from Nicholas Felton's Feltron Annual Report, showing the designer's travels over the course of 2008.

Lead image: Buckminster Fuller and Chuck Byrne, Dymaxion Air-Ocean World Map, 1981, courtesy of the Buckminster Fuller Institute.