Maintaining a 130-year-old publication’s place among the world’s most relevant and widely read print magazines means getting a lot of things right. But it also means recognizing an opportunity to deliver readers more of what they love, and not being afraid to adjust the formula when the time comes.
To that end, National Geographic’s May issue (on newsstands April 24) will mark the unveiling of its most significant redesign in nearly two decades, increasing the quality of its paper stock, introducing a brand new front-of-book section, and creating even more room for the photography and visual storytelling that have long made up the brand’s DNA.
“National Geographic has helped readers explore the world for 130 years, and we thought it was important to move forward by embracing our heritage in new and modern ways,” said editor-in-chief Susan Goldberg. “The new National Geographic delivers the same sense of wonder readers expect but with a bolder, more provocative, more captivating eye.”
Far from being born out of a desperate desire to survive in print—newsstand sales are actually up 16 percent this year, bucking industry trends—creative director Emmet Smith prefers to view the changes as a “proper evolution,” rather than a full-scale redesign.
“Our readers and peers are telling us loud and clear that we’re making a vital magazine,” Smith tells Folio:, citing the brand’s National Magazine Award win for single-topic issue and the 2017 Pulitzer Prizes, for which it was a finalist in the explanatory reporting category. “So, in our tinkering, we sought to identify those things that we do better than anyone and double down on them. It was less about changing something that people love than just flat out giving them more of it in a better way.”
Perhaps the biggest change readers will notice is the brand new front of the book, divided into three sections: Proof, short photo essays which the magazine says will highlight “new, provocative perspectives;” Embark, meant to challenge readers’ perspectives on a particular issue (the first asks why the sciences have lagged behind other fields in addressing the prevalence of sexual harassment); and Explore, adventure-style pieces making heavy use of photography, maps, and other visual elements. It’s all part of an effort not just to fuel curiosity and exploration, but to expose readers to new ideas and provoke questions.
“In addition to finding new ways to put photography at the center of what we do, we wanted to establish a more confident editorial point of view and really let readers know that they are in our hands and looking through our worldview—on the side of science, on the side of the facts, and on the side of the planet,” Smith continues. “We also wanted to bring to bear the tools of the modern magazine, employing a broader toolkit of devices and story forms to constantly surprise and delight our readers.”
As for the rest of the book, the typical formula of four-to-five feature stories of similar length has been expanded to add a number of shorter, photography- and illustration-heavy pieces packaged around two traditional deep-dive features and what the magazine calls “one, major marquee package,” typically the cover story.
To develop the new design and the strategy around it, Goldberg and Smith teamed with Godfrey Dadich Partners, the firm co-founded last year by former Wired editor-in-chief Scott Dadich, who helped conceive the look and feel of the new features as well as a pair of brand new typefaces that will debut with the redesign.
“It was an honor for us to collaborate on such an iconic brand—to dive into a 130-year history of cartography, photography, typefaces, and journalism, then design a new kind of magazine for today,” said Dadich. “Redesigning the magazine enhances its ability to deepen people’s understanding of the world and their role in it.”
The two new fonts, known as Earle and Marden—named for famed adventurers Sylvia Earle and Luis Marden, respectively—are meant to evoke typefaces from the magazine’s rich history in a way that’s updated for the current age.
“It wasn’t important to create new typefaces for the sake of creating new typefaces,” says Smith. “It was important for us to find the right voice—one that was distinct to National Geographic. For us, that meant digging into our 130-year history and looking for a contemporary way to express that pioneering spirit. Both of the faces are based on types from old issues, but have been completely redrawn to live comfortably in the modern world.”
Including the magazine’s iconic yellow-framed cover design, what won’t change, says National Geographic, is its commitment to pushing boundaries and inspiring readers to take on new adventures—two things that have helped it not just survive in print but also transition seamlessly into digital media (the most popular brand account on Instagram, Nat Geo‘s 87 million followers rank it between Kendall Jenner and Nicki Minaj).
But at a time when so many of its neighbors on the newsstand are investing heavily in digital media in a way that often comes at the expense of their print counterparts, National Geographic is doubling down, betting on its continued survival by reinvesting in the print publication it offers readers.
“Print today is a luxury. Our readers have to opt-in to us and make time in their busy days and room in their homes for us,” adds Smith. “We appreciate that privilege and believe that we should reward them with a magazine feels as good in the hand as it looks to the eye. The new paper stocks and finishes are all a part of creating that reward.”