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.
- Jenny Brewer
- 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”.
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
National Geographic April 2020 Earth Day US edition cover
About the Author
After five years as It’s Nice That’s news editor, Jenny became online editor in June 2021, overseeing the website’s daily editorial output.
Jenny is currently on maternity leave.