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Work / Publication

National Geographic’s creative director Emmet Smith on the publication’s redesign

A long-established and highly respected staple of the newsstands, National Geographic, has been redesigned for its May issue. Released on 24 April, the rethink of the magazine and “the most significant overhaul of content and design since 2000,” builds upon the magazine’s successes, creating even more exploratory visual storytelling. Debuting new paper stock, design, updated sections and specially created typefaces, the redesign is revealed at a time when the publication has a particularly strong reputation and readership.

The new evolution of National Geographic has been developed by the publication’s editorial director Susan Goldberg, creative director Emmet Smith and revered editorial-focused design agency, Godfrey Dadich Partners. The latter has a history with National Geographic, working with the publication on its global television event MARS and documentary series, Year Million. The design agency was engaged in identifying and distilling “the core values that would serve as the foundation for the magazine’s next chapter.”

Godfrey Dadich Partners were especially involved with the magazine’s new typographic direction including two new typefaces. The first is Earle, named after oceanographer Sylvia Earle, followed by Marden, an updated archival typeface which pays tribute to adventurer and pioneer of colour photography, Luis Marden. “We wanted to integrate a little bit of that archival typographic quirk that is so particular to the magazine, but bring it into harmony with what National Geographic covers today – exploring the geography of ideas as well as places and people,” explains creative director at Godfrey Dadich Partners, Allie Fisher. Created with Tal Leming from TypeSupply, the scale and texture of each typeface works “with the unique page size of the magazine, and they marry beautifully with the stunning photography that defines National Geographic,” she continues.

To expand on the reasons behind this redesign and what it means for future adventures with National Geographic, below we chat to the publication’s creative director Emmet Smith on this exciting design overhaul which redefines the magazine’s place in the publishing sector.

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Courtesy National Geographic

What were the reasons behind doing a redesign? What did you feel wasn’t quite working and needed updating?

The initial brief from our CEO was this: “If you were making National Geographic from scratch today, unmoored from its past, what would you make?” That’s a dream come true. We are coming off one of the most successful years in our history. Newsstand sales are up. We were a Pulitzer finalist. An ASME winner. Our readers and peers are telling us loud and clear that we’re making a vital magazine. And yet, everything was on the table for discussion. So, it wasn’t so much about changing things that weren’t working as much as it was about identifying the things that we do better than anyone and doubling down on them. 

Making way for more spectacular photography is an element referenced in the redesign heavily. It’s a large part of what people associate with the publication, but how will the redesign allow this to expand?

While the front sections of the magazine received the most dramatic rethink [the front section now provides an energetic introduction including “Proof” dedicated to short photo essays, “Embark” which investigates new arguments which challenge views and “Explore” featuring adventure-led pieces], the features section was tweaked specifically with this in mind. Readers will find at least one longer (sometimes over 40 pages) story that will lean heavily on photography and visual storytelling. In addition, they will find three of what we’re calling “visual stories,” stories told with photography, and sometimes infographics, as the main device. They’ll of course find a couple of classic National Geographic features, as well. When you add it all up, it means more space and an even stronger voice for the iconic images our photographers make. 

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Courtesy National Geographic

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Courtesy National Geographic

Can you tell us a little more about the design decisions that have informed the new typefaces implemented in the redesign?

The new typefaces help distinguish the editorial voice of the magazine. It wasn’t important to create new typefaces for the sake of creating new typefaces. It was important for us to find the right voice, one that was distinct to National Geographic. For us, that meant digging into our 130-year history and looking for a contemporary way to express that pioneering spirit. 

Two typefaces were created, inspired by both our historical typefaces and pioneers who have helped build the legacy of this magazine: legendary oceanographer and National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence Sylvia Earle, who was the first female chief scientist of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Luis Marden, an adventurer and photographer who was a pioneer in colour photography. We aim to never lose that spirit.  

How you want people to feel when receiving the new version of National Geographic, whether it’s long-term readers or new subscribers?

I want them to be inspired by the world around them. I want them to understand that place better, and to better understand their place in it. I want to fuel their exploration, deepen their understanding, and provoke new questions. And I want them to feel rewarded for giving us their time and their trust. People have so little of either these days. It’s time we started fixing that.

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Godfrey Dadich Partners

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