National Geographic’s Redesign Bridges Print Heritage & Digital Experience

Posted inBrand of the Day

From the depths of the ocean to the heights of the Himalayas, National Geographic has invited readers to explore the furthest reaches of human knowledge and imagination since 1888. The iconic logo — a rectangular, yellow frame created by Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv in 1997 — has become synonymous with science, culture, and exploration, converging in a tapestry of intriguing stories and breathtaking photography.

Since its founding, National Geographic, or NatGeo for short, has evolved into a multifaceted platform spanning print, digital, television, and more, exploring science, geography, history, and culture. NatGeo seeks to inspire curiosity, foster understanding, and champion conservation efforts worldwide through its articles, documentaries, educational initiatives, and photography.

The globally recognized magazine, which has over 84 million monthly readers, unveiled a significant design refresh this month. This transformation, revealed in the March issue, marks the debut under Editor-in-Chief Nathan Lump and Creative Director Paul Martinez, who assumed their roles in 2022. With Lump’s rich editorial background, including publications like TIME and The New York Times, alongside Martinez’s creative expertise at Travel + Leisure, the duo brings a bedrock of experience to the publication.

The key design and content highlights include:

  • New sections, including “In Focus,” a selection of full-page images from National Geographic’s photographers in the field, amplify the focus on photography and visual storytelling.
  • Short-form content is now interspersed with in-depth features to create a more varied and dynamic reading experience.
  • A larger typeface for an easier read – an intentional update taking reader feedback into account.
  • And a subscriber-only cover that features more artful, intimate visuals.

I reached out to Lump and Martinez, eager to discuss the driving forces behind this redesign and their plans for holding 130+ years of tradition, while addressing the evolving needs of print and digital audiences. Our conversation (condensed for length and clarity), is below.

The redesign marks a significant shift in National Geographic‘s visual identity and content structure. What was the inspiration behind deciding to introduce new sections like “In Focus” and the added emphasis on visual storytelling?

NL: We’ve had an emphasis on visual storytelling in our pages for many decades, so while I don’t see our recent adjustments as a particular shift in that direction, we are continually looking for ways to heighten for the reader what is special about what we do. The core of our mission is helping readers to discover and better understand the wonder of our world, and for me, a lot of what I wanted to accomplish with this refresh was to showcase the true diversity of the subjects we cover and what we’re learning about them – from animal behavior to science to history and more. Our new recurring story types are designed to do just that. “In Focus,” a handful of pages at the start of the book, is in many ways a microcosm of that wider approach: we are fortunate to have relationships with great photographers around the globe who are always at work, and this column brings readers a selection of their recent images from out in the field, across the full spectrum of topics of interest to our readers. 

PM: A segment such as “In Focus” truly emphasizes one of our strengths: photography. Placing this at the forefront is not just about captivating the reader with compelling images but also about swiftly propelling them into the heart of the magazine. This seamless transition leads directly into our initial main feature, where we aim for readers to immerse themselves in a deeper narrative.

How do you balance honoring the magazine’s rich heritage of storytelling, particularly through its iconic photography, while also pushing boundaries in today’s media landscape? In what ways does the redesign reflect the evolution of storytelling mediums and audience preferences?

NL: I am extremely conscious of our legacy and of the incredibly loyal, devoted readership we are fortunate to have, and of course that makes you be very deliberate and thoughtful when you make changes. But legacy can also lead you to be too conservative and hold you back from making genuine improvements in the service of your audience. My feeling is that as long as you retain your commitment to telling meaningful stories that align with your brand and meet your reader’s expectations of quality, you have permission to adjust as long as you are putting yourself in the reader’s shoes and thinking about what will serve them best. I thought a lot about what it means to innovate in print as we approached this work and tried to ask myself whether traditional conventions still held true. Years of working on digital content and products have grounded me in UX thinking and research, and I drew on that in this process. Our decision to radically simplify the book structure—essentially, almost the entire magazine is one unnamed “section” that consists of shorter and longer stories mixed together—stems from an understanding that digital and social environments have conditioned us to consume content in more free-flowing and serendipitous way. The story selection and flow are still highly curated, as any great magazine should be, but it allows for more variation and surprise that we think makes the overall experience more pleasurable and engaging.

Design plays a significant role in ensuring that readers do not encounter difficulty with the content.

Paul Martinez, Creative Director

The decision to incorporate more short-form content alongside in-depth features is interesting. How do you navigate maintaining depth and substance while catering to shorter attention spans in today’s digital age?

PM: Many of our decisions revolved around the concept of pacing. Our strategy involved interspersing shorter stories among the longer ones to create a dynamic flow of peaks and valleys for the reader. We discovered that grouping all the longer features together risked reader fatigue, so placing shorter pieces between them offers readers a chance to engage swiftly with the content.

From a design standpoint, we aimed to signal to the reader when they were transitioning from a longer feature to a shorter story. To achieve this, we developed a consistent template for the shorter stories, facilitating a smooth exit from and entrance into the longer features. Additionally, we sought to engage the typographer more in introducing the features to signify the beginning of a substantial story.

Typography plays a crucial role in readability and accessibility, and your decision to introduce a larger typeface reflects a commitment to improving the reader experience. How did you approach this aspect of the redesign, particularly in response to reader feedback?

PM: Ensuring readability is a constant and top priority. Design plays a significant role in ensuring that readers do not encounter difficulty with the content. Moreover, from an aesthetic perspective, we aimed to provide sufficient space for the increased type size in the body copy and captions to breathe. By augmenting the white space in the layouts, we were able to strike that delicate balance and hopefully improve the reader experience.

The subscriber-only cover featuring more artful and intimate visuals is a bold move, especially in an era where digital content often takes precedence. What motivated this decision, and how do you see it contributing to the magazine’s relationship with its most loyal readers?

NL: I am conscious that our relationship with subscribers is a personal one—they’ve invited us into their homes—and that the experience of receiving a printed magazine in the mail and diving into it on your sofa is quite particular relative to other ways that you encounter content in other environments and platforms. On a traditional newsstand, you need to shout, as it were, to gain a potential reader’s attention. In digital, it’s much the same—you have milliseconds in someone’s scrolling to grab their attention. When they’ve subscribed, they’ve already indicated an interest in your content and a willingness to engage. That’s not to say that the cover doesn’t need to provoke engagement, but when you hold a magazine in your hands at home, you are quite literally up close and personal with it. That allows us, I think, to showcase artistry and to be quieter in our choice of image when it’s appropriate, and we deliberately went minimal with type, in a nod to the old National Geographics with type-only covers that essentially served as a table of contents. Our goal is still to intrigue or to move the reader in some way, but we can take a different approach that we hope delivers something tailored to the subscriber’s mindset now that they’re ready to sit down and read.

How do you navigate the preferences and consumption habits of print readers versus digital consumers, and what lessons can other content creators learn from your experience? Any advice for media companies looking to strengthen connections with their audiences in an increasingly digital landscape?

NL: Like many publishers, we know that our print and digital audiences are quite distinct, and while they share some common affinities, they are not mirror images of each other. For many years, at other titles, I tried to achieve nearly total platform convergence—with all content designed to flow seamlessly between platforms—but I no longer think that’s the best approach. Increasingly, we take a fluid approach to our content creation, with some stories designed specifically to satisfy the needs of either print or digital (or social) audiences, and then selectively, those stories migrate to other platforms, often with modifications and sometimes in a different medium. It’s more bespoke and requires more care, but if you build the intention into your production process from the outset, you can ensure you’re generating the right type of material and minimize the effort required after the fact. This is an essential part of being responsive to audience preferences. What will work for a certain type of reader or user in one place will not necessarily work for another reader or user somewhere else. My goal with all our storytelling is to maximize the reach and impact of our work, and the way that works is by recognizing how preferences and behaviors vary based on where someone is and their mindset. The through line, of course, is quality – personally, I find this thinking and the process it informs so much more creatively energizing than when I started my career, although it is undoubtedly more complicated. You can’t do everything all the time, so it’s also important to be mindful of who you are most focused on reaching and strategically what you are trying to get out of building that relationship. I think that today, in digital environments, in particular, success is a lot about super-serving more specific audiences and interests. In some ways, we’ve always done this with our printed magazines, so we’re well positioned to thrive wherever we may be because we think consumer-first, fundamentally, and build that into everything we do.

National Geographic Editor’s page before and after.