When he was growing up in communist Bulgaria, graphic designer Yanko Tsvetkov became obsessed with maps. Atlases were among the few colorful books he had access to, and he spent hours tracing the maps and eventually altering them to draw slightly imaginary worlds. Decades later, he turned to maps again with the project Mapping Stereotypes, a series of satirical illustrations of national prejudices.
The project started almost by accident in 2009, during yet another conflict between Russia and Ukraine; because of the conflict, Vladimir Putin cut off the supply of natural gas to Bulgaria in the middle of a harsh winter. Tsvetkov started getting worried emails from international friends he’d made online, and decided to make an illustration to explain exactly what was going on.
"Because political analysis is rarely entertaining, I decided to make a satirical map," he later wrote in an essay about the maps.
"I decided to put in a little bit of humor so we could laugh about it. Even though it was a very difficult situation, it wasn’t a disaster," he says now in an interview. "That gave me the idea to make a series of maps about national prejudices, and different conflicts between countries."
A collection of the maps was published in a book called Atlas of Prejudice, and Tsvetkov recently released a second volume. Most of the maps focus on national stereotypes, though the designer is also interested in how group attitudes are shifting in the digital age.
"Part of the book tries to look at the world according to Facebook users," he says. "The notion of national communities—they’re not the leading force anymore, at least when we look at the younger generation. People start to form groups based on other principles than nationality, and have different types of prejudices and preconceptions that are fertile material for the type of mapping that I do."
Stereotype-filled maps aren't new; Tsvetkov points out that some European maps in the Middle Ages drew far-away people, like Scandinavians, as dogs. Of course, at that point, perhaps the mapmakers genuinely believed that Norwegians looked like poodles. Now, Tsvetkov hopes that pointing out obvious stereotypes may help people notice their own prejudice.
"In an interconnected global society, where information flows faster than thoughts, prejudices can turn out to be just a side effect of intellectual laziness," he wrote.