National Geographic’s creative director explains the Optimism vs Pessimism issue

The magazine uses its first double cover in the April 2020 Earth Day edition to show how the planet might be saved or lost based on our choices today.

30 March 2020

“The Earth Day issue reminds us, at a time of global public health emergency, that life on Earth is both fragile and deeply interconnected,” says Emmet Smith, creative director of National Geographic. The magazine has just published its April 2020 issue, an Earth Day special edition, at a poignant time with a double, flip-side cover – the publication's first – designed to hammer home the message that our choices today as a global population will decide which path the planet takes. On one side the headline is “How we saved the world”; on the other, “How we lost the planet,” the standfirsts explaining the first is “an optimist's guide to life on Earth in 2070” and the second, a pessimist's guide.

“For 132 years, National Geographic’s mission has been to report on the world around us and our role within it. Every environmental story has human stakes. Climate change is the existential issue of our times, and what better time to raise awareness and inspire action than on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. We are at a crossroads — do we act now or continue the status quo?” 

The double cover was editor Susan Goldberg’s idea, Smith continues. “It was designed to help readers see that we do have a choice here, to act, in what seems like a dire scenario. We have two paths and hope that our stories can inspire audiences to make changes and stand up to protect our planet.” Inside, each section of the magazine begins with a personal essay from writers Emma Marris and Elizabeth Kolbert, Marris the optimistic point of view, Kolbert the pessimistic angle. In terms of design, the two halves of the magazine are parallel in structure, Smith says, but differ in colour schemes: “cool greens and blues for the optimist’s view, and fiery reds and oranges for the pessimist’s”.

Smith and his team also commissioned a more condensed version of National Geographic's house sans serif typeface “to ratchet up the urgency”.


Alexis Rosenfeld/Getty Images: A diver off Noli, Italy, harvests tomatoes from Nemo's Garden, an experimental underwater farm where plants grow without soil or pesticides — a possible boon for places without arable land.

Likewise, photography mirrors the atmosphere of the two parallel worlds, from Pete Muller’s “lyrical, sombre take on the profound ways in which climate change is altering the very core of what home means,” to David Guttenfelder’s “quirky and audacious trip” across the United States in an electric car to investigate “just how close we are to a sustainable future”.  

Another major decision, and logistical challenge, for the magazine was unifying all 34 of the international issues of the publication with the same cover. This is the first time in over a decade this has happened, and entailed each local language edition publishing the same cover image and translated headline. The reasoning was two-fold: impact, and our current crisis connecting the world in an unprecedented way.

“National Geographic’s superpower is offering relevant, inspiring, reliable and evidence-based journalism in moments of both progress and fear, and our April issue diving deeply into environmental change is a groundbreaking example of both the implications of the change and new superheroes, people making real progress in protecting our planet. This comes at a time when the world is grappling with a current-day threat that reminds us in the clearest terms possible of the interconnectedness of the planet – and of all our roles in helping to protect one another,” Smith explains.

“It is as important as ever to look at other realities on the horizon that we must tackle together. Climate change is obviously a severe global threat, and by putting our full weight behind the topic worldwide, we hope to educate readers and inspire them to take action.”

GalleryNational Geographic April 2020 edition for Earth Day


Pete Muller/National Geographic: Hunter Valley resident John Lamb drives miles out of his way to avoid coal mines that dominate the area. “You see the devastation of the mine, the moonscape,” says Lamb. “Whatever great feeling you had is gone.” His wife, Denise, agrees. “Everything is covered in this black dust,” she says, wiping a hand on a patio table to show the grime (pictured). “No matter how much I try, I'm losing that battle.”


David Guttenfelder/National Geographic: An abandoned yellow pickup truck with a field of wind turbines behind it in Grady, NM.


Pete Muller/National Geographic: Gwen Nordgren sits for a portrait by the pool next to the charred ruins of her former home in Paradise, California. Two months after the fire, Nordgren allowed Muller to accompany her on her return to say goodbye to the “perfect retirement house,” a place filled with 15 years of memories. The pool holds a special place in her thoughts. “I would go in the pool in the morning by myself,” Nordgren says. “I’d get into my bathing suit and get into this gorgeous pool, and I just felt like a queen. I'd look up at this beautiful California blue sky.”


Tom Jamieson/National Geographic: Greta Thunberg. After capturing the world's attention at the United Nations in New York City last September, the activist, now 17, spoke in December at the UN's climate change conference in Madrid. Her main theme: science. “I’ve given many speeches and learned that when you talk in public, you should start with something personal or emotional to get everyone's attention,” she said. “But today I will not do that because then those phrases are all that people focus on. They don't remember the facts, the very reason why I say those things in the first place.”


Stefan Christmann: Emperor penguins normally breed on sea ice, taking more than eight months to raise their chicks. When sea ice is unstable or breaks up before the chicks fledge, emperors sometimes move onto the continent's more stable ice shelf. Fledglings then have to leap from great heights to feed in the ocean. Sea ice is projected to decrease as oceans warm. If the penguins don't adapt, their population could plunge dramatically.


National Geographic Earth Day logo


National Geographic April 2020 Earth Day Germany edition cover


National Geographic April 2020 Earth Day Japan edition cover

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National Geographic April 2020 Earth Day US edition cover

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Jenny Brewer

Jenny oversees our editorial output across work, news and features. She was previously It’s Nice That's news editor. Get in touch with any big creative stories, tips, pitches, news and opinions, or questions about all things editorial.

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