Champions of Design: National Geographic

The magazine of the eponymous society has been the cornerstone of its expansion into TV, movies and digital.

Champions of Design: National Geographic

Long a staple ofIn association with JKR doctors' waiting rooms, the yellow-bordered National Geographic magazine is the most visible representation of the National Geographic Society, one of the biggest non-profit scientific and educational institutions.

Formed in 1888, the original society was an elite grouping of academics and their patrons who were interested in travel. The first 33 members met at the Cosmos Club in Washington, DC, where the organisation is still based. That year, it produced the first edition of the magazine and distributed it to 200 charter members.

The launch of the magazine was a natural outcome of the society's aim to "increase and diffuse geographical knowledge". Its trademarked border was adapted in 2002 to become the logo used across the society's brands.

Despite its origins as an elite society, the history of National Geographic has demonstrated an urge to popularise and democratise knowledge. The magazine was an early exponent of photography, publishing 11 pages of photos of Lhasa in Tibet in 1905, and pioneering flash photographs of animals at night.

Such novelty did not always meet with acceptance in the early days. Board members railed at the magazine being turned into a "picture book", and two resigned. However, the publication continued with photographic firsts, such as natural-colour underwater pictures in 1926.

Content has been at the heart of National Geographic since its launch, and the organisation's support of geographic expeditions and projects has provided a plethora of stunning imagery. In December 2011, the society awarded its 10,000th research grant, bringing the total it has paid out to $153m (£101m).

These grants have included backing for Robert Ballard, who discovered of the wreck of the Titanic, and oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau. It also supported Dian Fossey's study of mountain gorillas in Rwanda, and the first expedition to the North Pole.

The magazine itself is read by 60 million people in 38 languages each month, but it is not the society's only publication. It prints a range of magazines and books, including titles for children, students and travellers.

Furthermore, the organisation entered TV production in the 1960s and launched its own channel in 1997 in a deal with Fox Cable, which has the controlling interest. By June 2012, the National Geographic Channel had more than 350 million subscribers across 172 countries.

Digital has expanded the reach of the brand further. An iPad edition of the magazine won an ASME Ellie award last year, while an iPhone edition has also been launched, as well as geographically flavoured apps. The society claims that its photographic and film heritage have made it the leading media brand on Instagram and YouTube.

Beyond media, the brand licenses sympathetic products such as luggage, photography equipment and apparel, while a string of retail outlets have been launched through a deal with Spanish company World Retail Store. In all, the society's operations had a turnover of $455m (£300m) in 2011.


Silas Amos, Creataive Strategist, JKRBy Silas Amos, Creative Strategist, JKR

Design is a vessel for content. If the content isn't up to scratch, then the vessel, however smart, won't be worth a damn.

So National Geographic is a champion of design on two counts – as a brilliantly bold and effective piece of branding, and because it has always made the content king. When I am trying to show clients the power of branding to affect perception, I show them a picture of a penguin. "It's just a photo of a penguin, right?".

Then I add a yellow frame. "Ah, it's a National Geographic photo of a penguin." The image immediately grows in stature.

The real merit of National Geographic's brilliant identity isn't the warm yellow border, however, but what it frames – decades of pioneering photography, carefully selected and presented. The covers are a window onto the world; inspiring, eye-opening, illuminating. Even when you see the mark as a logo with nothing inside the box, it conjures up all the fantastic images that have been shared with us.

Beyond judging the book by its cover, the inside of the magazine has long been an elegant and considered design exercise, supporting the material in an un-showy and non-trendy way. Thus the magazine ages well and can be revisited years after publication.

As the brand moves into apps, merchandise and suchlike, it shows an elasticity that is only possible because, in essence, it has kept things simple – both in branding and in never allowing design to get in the way of content.


1888: National Geographic Society's 33 founding members met in Washington, DC. The first issue of the magazine was printed.

1890: First society-sponsored expedition mapped an area of Alaska.

1909: The society supported the first explorers to reach the North Pole.

1952: Magazine printed the first article by Jacques-Yves Cousteau.

1962: First all-colour issue printed.

1965: Made TV debut in the US with Americans on Everest.

1984: Offshoot magazine National Geographic Traveler was launched.

1996: Website launched.

1997: National Geographic Channels International was launched.

2002: Design agency Chermayeff & Geismar created the yellow box logo. First involvement in movie production,' K-19: The Widowmaker', which went on to make a big loss.

2005: Partnered Warner Independent Pictures as a distributor of 'March of the Penguins', the second-highest-grossing documentary film to date.

2011: Society made its 10,000th grant, bringing total paid out to $153m.

2013: Celebrated 125th anniversary.

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