Geograph Design Information

17 April 2018

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Geograph is a contemporary, plain sans serif designed for National Geographic. It comprises 24 styles for use across their broadcast, print and web channels. Geograph was designed under direction from Emmet Smith, Mariano Barreiro and Bethany Powell. We drew inspiration from several international type foundries.

National Geographic announced their rebrand in 2016. The rebrand reflected a shift back to “smart science”. The word “channel” was dropped from their network name to foster a “collective culture around the brand, one that not long ago operated its various divisions pretty separately”. Their intention was to “[elevate their] programming, returning to premium, unabashedly smart content”.

Gretel made the overarching brand identity: they created The Index and a motion language, chose the typographic palette of Verlag and Neue Haas Grotesk, and developed the new tagline “Further”. This work was originally commissioned solely for the channel, but was subsequently applied across all National Geographic media.

Emmet got in touch with me in 2016, requesting a custom font to “serve as the main brand typeface for National Geographic across television, print and digital media”. The National Geographic creative team (Emmet Smith, Mariano Barreiro and Bethany Powell) felt that Verlag wasn’t 100% right as the voice of the brand. Coupling it with Neue Haas Grotesk felt like an imperfect match born of tight launch timelines. A couple of months later the brief expanded:

  1. A replacement for Verlag — stylistically similar, and primarily used as a display face on air, on screens and on the cover of the magazine. This will be the face of National Geographic.
  2. A replacement for Neue Haas Grotesk — this is to be a more neutral editorial typeface, which will be used in everything from headlines on digital articles to photo captions in the magazine.

Emmet proposed an approach to meeting their twin desires (a brand-definitional face and a more neutral, workhorse face) that didn’t involve creating two new typefaces.

“Perhaps,” he wrote, “we could make something with a more neutral base with a ‘display’ version that ramps up its expressiveness.” It was an astute and pragmatic proposition.

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A comparison between Tiempos Text/Grosvenor Book and Tiempos Headline/Grosvenor Fine.

National Geographic previously had a varied typographic palette. The magazine, for example, was using several typefaces. The sans serif comprised Verlag capitals at large sizes with generous letter-spacing — no lowercase at all. Neue Haas Grotesk was used in upper- and lowercase for headlines, captions and pull quotes. The serifs (which had recently replaced Chronicle Text) were custom versions of Tiempos produced by Klim in 2015: Grosvenor Book and Grosvenor Fine. Grosvenor Book was adapted from Tiempos Text by lengthening the ascenders and descenders. Grosvenor Fine was a sharpened and refined version of Tiempos Headline. This marked National Geographic’s gradual transition from using several off-the-shelf typefaces to custom typefaces.

There’s the history of painting, which Johnson dips in and out of with the aplomb of the post-postmodern generation: those, that is, for whom digital noise has rendered everything equal, and any image is fodder to be reworked.

Quentin Sprague, “A Space of One’s Own”, The Monthly.

We stand, it is often said, on the shoulders of giants. This is especially true in contemporary typeface design — and it’s a reminder of the importance of looking backwards before forging on. It’s relatively easy to construct a timeline of typefaces over five centuries, yet I find it difficult to imagine the culture and worldview of typeface designers from the 1930s, 1730s, 1530s. It’s difficult to assess the typographic historicity. Looking at digital scans of typeface specimens somehow equalises them. Their specific temporality and regionality fade away, while their forms become more present. It feels like the past is a singular thing, collapsed and flattened. The relentless updating of the internet both exacerbates and normalises this feeling.

Art “lives” through influencing other art, not by existing as the physical residue of an artist’s ideas.

Joseph Kosuth, “Art after Philosophy”, Art Theory.

We know about the old typefaces by their influence on contemporary ones. For example, designers know about Garamond because they’ve used the digital versions — even though the digital versions are not (and cannot be) exact recreations of the original metal typefaces. It can be argued that the original only exists in a meaningful sense through copies. In the typeface design world, Sumner Stone describes it acutely:

That’s really what we have, that’s what letters are made of – other letters. There are cross-cultural influences.

To thoroughly understand the historical precedents for Geograph— understand those giants on whose shoulders we stand — we returned to the materials upon which Verlag and Neue Haas Grotesk were based. We visited the wellspring of geometrics and grotesks to fill our own glasses and goblets. This is always a critical step. Every typeface embodies the style and ideas of its own time — there is no such thing as “timeless”. Verlag, for example, embodies the Art-Deco geometry of the 1930s within the digital style of the 1990s. We needed to look at these materials with fresh eyes.

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Some of the reference typeface specimens.

To begin the process I gathered specimens of 18 typefaces from 14 type foundries, covering a range of sans-serif genres: grotesk, neo-grotesk, geometric, glyphic. The National Geographic creative team reviewed them, keeping their specific requirements in mind, and replied: “Super Grotesk or Bauer Futura are the best starting points.”

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Left: Super Grotesk, courtesy of Indra Kupferschmid. Right: Futura.

The team identified Super Grotesk as almost ideal both for small and large sizes. It wasn’t very interesting, however, for all-caps use — and caps were particularly important to “drive the aesthetic”. The raw potential of Futura’s DNA appealed strongly, especially if we could “soften the strident geometry”. They acknowledged that Futura’s geometry is “kind of the point” but suggested, “if we’re less doctrinaire could it become something more suitable for us?” “In short,” they wrote, “we’re drawn to the pragmatism of Super Grotesk and the idealism of Futura.”

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Tempo Medium. Note the variants listed on the left.

They also reacted strongly to Tempo, particularly for its extensive use of variants to “shade the typeface one way or another”, depending on the desired context. They explained: “This sort of flexibility would be incredibly valuable as we try to optimize these faces for so many different environments.”

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The second Geograph beta, showing all the alternates.

From the start of the development process I created a family with as many alternate letterforms (“variants”) as possible. I’ve previously explored the potential of alternates with Metric and Calibre, writing at the time that “alternates can dramatically change the tone and flavour of a typeface, not only in a single word but also across a block of text.” With the Geograph betas I pushed the alternate options even further, expanding the palette dramatically. I wanted to give the team maximum flexibility across environments.

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Making alternates for a typeface family isn’t unusual, but I haven’t done it at this scale with a client before. I channeled the team’s typographic needs into a smorgasbord of options and let the team edit.

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Changing one letterform means the others must also match.

It’s natural to express a preference for a single letterform. We weren’t making a single letterform, however, we were making a complex system across several weights and styles. The various options needed to work well together — every decision about a certain letterform had to be checked against the breadth of the character set and the depth of the weights.

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Various groupings of alternates from the second beta.

The capitals also had to work with the lowercase letters, of course. I created several stylistic sets, named after the typeface or genre they could combine with. This was a fascinating part of the process. My natural tendency is to harmonise details across letterforms, yet this isn’t the best (or even most logical) method of creating typographic texture. This is what the team was doing: making fine-grained textural decisions.

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The decision-making was focused and granular. For example: there are largely two ways of joining curved strokes to straight ones in lowercase letterforms: sharp and smooth. Super Grotesk has sharp joins, Futura has smooth. We also explored square or round dots and associated punctuation. Geograph could have gone either way, but we eventually decided on smooth joins and round dots. They harmonised with each other, and provided a nice counterpoint to the sharp vertical cuts on the terminals.

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Test versions of a Futura with increasing x-heights.

While developing Geograph, we also explored a Futura revival I’d been working on. At Emmet’s request, I made test versions with increased x-heights. We noticed that the further the proportions strayed from the original, the less convincing the typeface became — its spirit was diminished. This direction was an interesting detour, but we ruled it out. In the end the team decided: “Geograph has the bones we’re looking for and fits into our design systems the best.”

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The final range of Geograph styles.

After careful examination and testing we resolved the Geograph character set and style range. Geograph is grouped into two families: Geograph and Geograph Edit. Geograph is the primary set, with sharp detailing. Edit’s aesthetic works when sharpness isn’t appropriate, featuring blunt detailing and a more robust finish. Both sets have “Futura alternates”: G, S, a, e, g, j, s, t, u, and a fancy crossed W for special occasions.

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Geograph’s “Futura” alternates.

Ever since the warm grey of Grosvenor replaced the cool grey of Chronicle, National Geographic has slowly but surely transitioned towards a bespoke typographic palette. With so many moving parts within the National Geographic family, the change has taken a few years. The team have taken care to respect the typographic atmosphere across their myriad properties.

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The National Geographic website was one of the first properties to feature Geograph. One of the first deployments was for the Best Trips 2018 feature in the Travel section. A beautiful interactive map detailing the migration patterns of birds gave Geograph a thorough workout. Currently the web team is rolling it out systematically across the beta version of the site — no easy task, given the scale of their site sections and subsites.

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The broadcast team are lucky enough to work with extremely high quality cinematography. Here Geograph plays a secondary, supporting role — the intention is not to compete with the sublime imagery. They use Geograph sparingly, staying within the typographic system designed by Gretel.

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Details from the new National Geographic magazine, May 2018.

Near the end of the project I saw working drafts of the new magazine, complete with several new typefaces. Up until this point I (naïvely) assumed the magazine’s palette would be strictly Grosvenor and Geograph. It was a welcome surprise, especially when I found out the new typefaces were made by the inimitable Tal Leming. Tal has made two new condensed families: Earle and Marden. Earle is a nod to the Egyptian typefaces used in historical issues of the magazine, and Marden is a matching grotesk. He also drew the new National Geographic nameplate, resplendent with its effortless RA ligature.

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From the National Geographic creative team: “New type in infographics, probably our most rigorous testing ground.”

It’s unusual for a brand to use so many typefaces, but National Geographic magazine has traditionally worked with a diverse range. They achieve such depth and breadth with the cool, sharp forms of Geograph, through the warm grey of Grosvenor, to the characterful Earle and Marden.

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My tendency is to distil a typeface down to a small range of letterforms, yet this project asked the opposite: greater flexibility and texture with a suite of alternates, and an overall bridging style that complements numerous other typefaces. Viewed hundreds of years on, typography can feel flattened — it’s on us to give it depth.

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Geograph was designed by Kris Sowersby and engineered by Noe Blanco. Panos Haratzopoulos designed Greek versions. The Geograph fonts are currently licensed for the exclusive use of National Geographic.

The header image is made with NZ Mainland Contours mapping data from koordinates.com.