National Geographic Thematic Typefaces
A couple of years ago I designed typefaces for a major redesign of National Geographic magazine and I’ve had the unbelievably good fortune to continue collaborating with the team there. Emmet Smith, Marianne Seregi, Hannah Tak, T.J. Tucker and other great people working on the magazine have brought me in to contribute typefaces and lettering to help voice the themes of several issues.
When Emmet first approached me about the idea of creating a typeface for an individual theme, I did some thinking about how this would work if we ended up making many thematic typefaces over a long period of time. The magazine has a very carefully balanced typographic hierarchy and I didn’t want to start injecting random things that would mess that up. Earle and Marden were to remain the primary display typefaces, even in the special issues, so the new typefaces would need to be subservient to them while also being obviously different and special. I thought back to the development of Marden and, long story short, it was designed to be a direct descendant of Earle. My goal was to not create a completely different voice than the one projected by Earle, but rather to create a different tone of the same voice. I decided to use this relationship between Earle and Marden to establish rules that any thematic typefaces would need to follow:
- Earle is the boss. Do not challenge Earle’s authority.
- When at all possible, use the same armature that underlies Earle.
- Always put a spur on the G.
- Always use a (mostly) straight leg with a foot for the R. Give it a little angle if possible.
- Always use a double story structure for a. (Except in italics, but we don’t have a precedent for that yet.)
- Always use the double story structure with an open loop and a vertical ear for the g. (Except maybe in italics, but, again, we haven’t gotten there yet.)
- The end result should continue the “21st interpretation of classic wood type styles” model established with Earle and Marden.
I’ve followed these rules for each of the thematic typefaces so far. (Except when I deliberately broke the rules. ;) The team at National Geographic and I have established a back and forth process for developing these:
- They’ll give me a thematic prompt and some aesthetic ideas. “A really condensed sans.” “Something that feels 1920s.” “Very, very, very wide.”
- I’ll sketch out some test words in various styles and send them over to play with.
- They’ll pick one or two or three of those for me to explore further. (Or they’ll tell me that I completely missed and I’ll draw more test words until we have something to explore further.)
- I’ll rework the test words into some very basic fonts for them to experiment with.
- They’ll push and pull these until the preliminary layouts are starting to work and they’ll send me PDFs of the layouts*.
- I’ll figure out how to adjust the width/weight/contrast/etc. to make the typeface do its job better and send them revised fonts.
- We’ll go back and forth until everything is locked down and the fonts are finalized.
It’s a very rewarding, quick process that, I think, results in typefaces that help readers dive into the important stories that National Geographic is telling.
*Bonus for nerdy me: I sometimes get to watch illustrations go from early sketches to the final, perfect, beautiful things that end up in the magazine. It makes me so giddy. The illustrators are amazing.