21CF Chats: Emmet Smith on National Geographic magazine’s new redesign

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Readers will see the new design in the magazine’s May 2018 issue

Earlier today National Geographic magazine announced a new redesign, one that will make the pages easier for readers to navigate, emphasize visual storytelling, introduce two new typefaces and more. The new design will debut with National Geographic magazine’s May 2018 issue, which hits print newsstands on April 24, and will be available at ngm.com.

“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 Susan Goldberg, Editorial Director of National Geographic Partners and Editor in Chief of National Geographic magazine. “The new National Geographic delivers the same sense of wonder readers expect but with a bolder, more provocative, more captivating eye.”

Emmet Smith, Creative Director of National Geographic magazine, added that the new design “allows us to more fully showcase the spectacular work of our photographers, reporters, and artists — and, in turn, provide an even better magazine for our readers.”

I asked Emmet to share some more details about the new magazine redesign, including how it came about, the driving idea behind it and his favorite part of the process.

When did the process begin, and what made it the right time for a redesign?
I started interviewing firms in June of last year. It’s always the right time to invest in telling stories about the world and our place in it. Right now, we’re coming off one of the most successful years in our history: Newsstand sales are up, we were a Pulitzer finalist and an ASME winner. Our readers and peers are telling us loud and clear that we’re making a vital magazine. We wanted to build on that momentum. The stories we tell in our magazine are the heart and soul of who we are as an organization. Telling those stories visually through arresting photography is what we do as well as anyone on the planet. If we are to persevere and continue to succeed as a publication, it can only be through doubling down on those strengths and giving our readers a reward every time they pick us up, on each and every page. Resting on our laurels is not an option.

How would you explain the driving idea behind the redesign to a National Geographic magazine reader?
In addition to finding new ways to put visual storytelling 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. The new front-of-book really addresses that, especially in the new Embark section that leads off with a reported essay that is very much a statement of purpose for us. May’s issue examines why the sciences have been so much slower to address sexual harassment than other professions. 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.

Is the redesign influenced in any way by how readers engage with the magazine’s online content?
Of course. Our digital reach is humbling — 87.3 million strong on Instagram today and growing. We looked to borrow some of the immediacy and urgency that the web allows for while leaning into the immersive, tactile qualities of print that you just can’t get from your iPhone. Readers will find new sections exploring topics in the zeitgeist — from #metoo to climate change. And we close each issue with a picture from Your Shot, our phenomenally talented online photographic community. National Geographic is a great magazine, and there’s so much beyond it in our organization for us to celebrate and learn from.

A look inside the pages of the redesigned magazine

What was your favorite part of the redesign process?
I love this magazine. I loved this magazine before this redesign and I love it even more now. My favorite part was getting to take things apart a bit and look for new ways to do the things we do well even better — to find more room for photography, more room for visual storytelling and more ways to bring our stories into the global conversation. In a place with a 130-year history, it was gratifying to be able to put everything on the table and try to find a better way. My favorite part was that there were few constraints, only possibilities. There was no “We’ve always done it that way.” There was only: “How can we make a great magazine even better?”

Is there a particular change that you’re fond of — one you hope readers will notice and appreciate?
I think the front of the magazine now looks tremendous. There’s a structure and pacing, and room for surprise and delight. It’s really our opportunity to set the table for everything we do — great reporting, photography, infographics and cartography — there’s a taste of everything in there. It’s an experience our readers will know they can expect every month before they dive into the globe-trotting stories in the feature well. I also love the paper change between the two sections. The front-of-book is now printed on a very tactile matte paper that befits its more urgent tone. Once readers hit the feature well, the paper shifts to glossy to amplify the full-screen, cinematic nature of our marquee storytelling.

Learn more about National Geographic magazine’s redesign, and read Susan’s introduction to the magazine’s new look.