National Geographic Nameplate
Godfrey Dadich Partners (GDP) approached me about designing some new typefaces for National Geographic as part of their work on the magazine. While we were discussing these typefaces, they mentioned that they also wanted me to take a look at changing the magazine’s nameplate (aka “logo”). The first thing that popped into my head was, “That nameplate has been around since I was a kid!” My subsequent research indicated that the nameplate had first appeared in the July 1959 issue, long before I was a kid. The July 1959 version of the nameplate read “The National Geographic Magazine.” Five issues later, in the December 1959 issue, “Magazine” was removed from the nameplate. Three issues later, in the March 1960 issue, the word “The” was dropped. It remained like this for every issue for the next 58 years. (The only exception I could find was the more somber nameplate used on the moving cover of a January 1964 special issue.) If a nameplate lasts for over half a century, it’s doing something right. Even though drawing new nameplates is part of my job, my first thought was, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it and I don’t think this thing is broke.” I said as much and GDP told me that they agreed. They didn’t think a NEW! NEW! NEW! nameplate was needed. Rather, they wanted me to look at the nameplate and try to bring it into harmony with the clean, modern and sophisticated design coming to rest of the magazine. That was something I felt comfortable doing. I was given the vector version of the 1959 nameplate and I started spending some quality time with it:
Nameplates are complex pieces of design with two main jobs. The first, obviously, is to identify the publication. There’s a lot more to that than shouting, “Hey, I am This Magazine!” The nameplate also needs to succinctly convey the personality of the publication. In the case of National Geographic, this means declaring the publication’s respectability and legacy. GDP and I felt that the nameplate could do this better by being a bit more confident and giving a more obvious nod to the publication’s history. A nameplate’s next job is to disappear. Once the reader registers the identity of the publication, their interest shifts to the contents of the publication and that is conveyed by headlines, imagery and supporting text. The nameplate must get out of the way and let these start communicating. The brief became: 1. don’t break it; 2. make it more confident; 3. give some nods to the past; 4. make it more static than headline text; 5. don’t let it distract from the world renowned photographs and illustrations; 6. seriously, don’t break it.
The first thing I set out to do was make a list of the ways that I thought the nameplate wasn’t playing nicely with the other elements on the cover. “Invisibility” and “neutrality” are controversial and endlessly discussed subjects in the design world. Honestly, these debates bore me. There is nothing inherently “neutral” about anything made by humans, especially letterforms. Our associations with these are entirely rooted in our personal history and culture. Given that National Geographic is a publication that is recognizable throughout the world, none of the usual philosophical notions of visual invisibility mattered for what I needed to figure out. Rather, I had to approach this purely from a functional perspective: What could I change to make it drop back in the visual hierarchy? That led me to wonder how the hierarchy had been balanced in the past and that led to some research. Following its introduction in July 1959, the nameplate was used almost exclusively in black on a solid white background. This controlled environment allowed the delicate serifs and high stroke contrast of the nameplate to look gorgeous. In October 1962, the nameplate began regularly appearing in black or white atop a photograph. This worked fine for years, but as photographic reproduction improved, the increasing clarity and complexity in the photographs began to compete with the nameplate. My plan was to simplify the serifs, reduce the contrast, use more pronounced serif bracketing to even out weight distribution, reduce the sharpness of vertices and ever so slightly normalize the letterform proportions. Basically, I was going to make it ever so slightly less delicate so that it would relinquish some of its visual prominence to the photographs.
On the personality side, GDP wanted me to see if the nameplate could imply the magazine’s history by bringing back some traits of pre-July 1959 nameplates. Specifically they were interested in an R with a concave leg and a more nuanced relationship between “National” and “Geographic.” I also wanted to introduce some subtle inscriptional details to make the nameplate feel more prestigious. Neither GDP or I wanted it to feel old or like some kind of time capsule. It needed to look contemporary, but not new.
I started by redrawing everything from scratch so that I had a clean set of vectors to work with. Then, I set about the work of manipulating details:
When viewed individually these may not seem like much. I mean, how different is the I from the original, really? But, there are a ton of these little detail changes: the weight distribution axis was slightly off-kilter, the curves were a bit lumpy, the shape of the G felt forced into an unnatural position, the P was a bit too fussy, the spacing could use some TLC and on and on. When you add all these up…
That’s a lot of changes. However, if I did my job right, the only change that people should notice is that the photographs on the cover stand out more. Here’s the before and after in position atop Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl photograph from the June 1985 issue:
Oh yeah, about the RA ligature. So, reintroducing the concave leg presented a problem. There was a large amount of space between the R and the A in the 1959 nameplate. The concave leg of the R in the new nameplate introduced even more space. It started to read as “GEOGR APHIC” which isn’t what I was going for. I tried all sorts of stuff before before accidentally overlapping the serif on the A with the leg of the R. “Oh. That could work.” I wish I could claim that it was the result of some sort of brilliant insight, but it just happened.