It is almost 55 years since Martin Luther King Jr delivered his legendary I Have a Dream speech during the March on Washington, calling an end to racism and demanding civil and economic rights. Yet, equality remains a distant dream for many Americans today.
This year, to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr’s legacy fifty years after his assassination in 1968, The Atlantic has released a special issue in memory of the visionary civil rights activist. The type-led magazine is a powerful piece of social activism that pays tribute to a man whose words played a key role in advancing equality nationwide. Framed by Dr King’s Three Evils speech where he identifies racism, poverty and war as the world’s main malignancies, the MLK issue is a celebration of one of the most important figures in modern history.
The Atlantic teamed up with New York-based branding and design agency, The Original Champions of Design (OCD), to conceptualise and execute the publication’s layout. “We’re industry agnostic and focus on brands with lots to lose. We prioritise businesses that have progressive values. We like working at scale, so we’re able to reach the broadest range of people possible,” Bobby Martin Jr, the agency’s cofounder, tells It’s Nice That. OCD’s previous work includes posters encouraging Americans to vote in the 2016 elections as well as The New York Times Magazine’s iconic rebrand.
The MLK issue is divided into four sections, each of which shines light on a different aspect of Dr King and the injustices he fought hard to banish. “We used type because so much content is driven by photography. The lettering carries historical and metaphoric meaning and it contrasts the visual density of the rest of the issue,” Bobby says. Powerful and potent, the first spread reads “The Man” in bold, black letters against a plain, white backdrop. The confrontational design places emphasis on just two words and feels particularly relevant in the current political climate; President Trump isn’t exactly famous for his careful use of words. “For the introduction to Martin Luther King Jr we forced the viewer to turn the magazine on its side and hold it up like a placard. Caslon Doric Condensed is set in all caps with the word Man underlined to reference posters from the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike in 1968.” By alluding to significant historical artefacts, the publication highlights that the social, cultural and economic issues of the 1960s are just as pertinent today as they were five decades ago.
“The second opener is Racism. This type bites down hard like teeth. It’s harsh and repetitive and unending – it bleeds off the page. Racism is the first of what was known as Dr King’s three Evils. 50 years after his death, we are still dealing with the very same issues.” The magazine’s third chapter addresses the second of Dr King’s three Evils, poverty, which is visualised through a stark, bare layout. The type is small in size and the word itself is poignantly pushed to the margins. The final chapter on Militarism sees a giant M colonise one page and occupy part of the next. Bobby explains that “the letter M is like a broad chest” and that on some readings the harsh lines can be understood as dominating, abstract shards.
“There was an urgency to this work. A hope that it could drive people to action. As Dr King said, "However dark it is, however deep the angry feelings are, and however violent explosions are, I can still sing “We Shall Overcome.” The most important spread in the whole issue might be the photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. voting,” Bobby says. “OCD has always prioritised work with progressive values. This builds on that imperative. The timeline was our biggest challenge but The Atlantic’s design team, Paul Spella and David Somerville, made it easy. They were nothing but supportive throughout the process. Delivering final files on Martin Luther King Day is a memory I’ll never forget.”
The MLK publication is The Atlantic’s fourth special issue, with previous editions having been dedicated to The Civil War, World War One and John F Kennedy. Paul Spella, The Atlantic’s art director, reflects on the magazine’s collaboration with OCD Agency: “Design-wise we went into this wanting to create something that strongly reflected Dr King’s legacy, but stayed true to The Atlantic’s identity as a whole. Something progressive and reflective at the same time. Bobby and OCD could not have done a better job. All of their decisions were so thoughtful for this particular project. So while the past special issues were perhaps more focused on what we were doing in our monthly magazine at the time, this one feels particularly personal and is a reflection of Martin Luther King Jr, his work and what was left behind after his death."