A “drab scientific publication wrapped in a plain brown cover” is how former Editor in Chief Chris Johns describes the first edition of National Geographic Magazine in the 125th anniversary issue. After 127 years of printing, the magazine couldn’t be more different. The evolution from a dense scientific publication to one of the largest non-profit scientific organizations in the world was not an overnight affair. The history of the company is composed of a series of innovations and adaptations, never happening more rapidly than in the last decade.

The catalyst for this culture of innovation was 11 blank pages in the January 1905 issue. Sure he was going to be fired for his decision, Editor Gilbert H. Grosvenor decided to publish photos out of a package from the Russian Imperial Geographic Society of Lhasa, Tibet, then one of the most remote places on the planet. Much to his surprise readership soared and National Geographic’s reputation as the pinnacle for photojournalism was born.

NatGeo’s design has undergone constant evolution since 1888, publishing the first color cover photo of an American Flag in July of 1959.

Today NatGeo has expanded to a full-fledged multimedia company, still leading the way in photography and scientific journalism while appealing to a diverse audience. As digital media has rapidly evolved, National Geographic has taken full advantage and pushed the limits of visual media in storytelling. Their first step into the realm of video came with the creation of the National Geographic Channel in 1997. In addition to their two television channels, they maintain a YouTube account that boasts more than 3.8 million followers.

While that number of YouTube fans is impressive, NatGeo dominates other social media platforms as well. They’ve gathered over 35 million likes on Facebook and 8 million followers on Twitter, but Instagram is where they really shine.

Even with the expansion into video and publishing on almost every platform, National Geographic has kept photography as its top priority. With a following of more than 17 million, National Geographic is followed by 4.3% of Instagram’s monthly users. Boasting some of the most renowned photographers in the world, quality content is not hard to attain. They often receive over 100,000 likes per post and utilize their massive popularity to drive viewers to all their other platforms.

National Geographic’s boldest move into social media has been the creation of Your Shot. An in-house social medium, it appeals to aspiring and professional photographers by giving them a chance to connect with Nat Geo’s editors and photographer. Johns calls it an “incredibly valuable community,” with the bonus for some submissions of possibly being printed in the magazine.

“You shouldn’t notice the design, great design brings content to the front,” Johns said.

National Geographic has been constantly disrupting since its creation. As an organization they have always been on the cutting edge, be it printing the first color photograph of a Belgian flower garden in 1914 or building interactive HTML5 graphics to complement their pull-out posters. The magazine was born as a scientific journal filled with dense text and maps of far away places, but became a leader in visual journalism with the printing of its first photos in 1905. Since then, National Geographic has pushed visual media forward and plans to keep pushing into the 21st century.


The Magazine

Under the Leadership of then Editor in Chief Chris Johns, NatGeo underwent a complete redesign. “Great design bring content to the front,” Johns said. “Content is king.” He emphasized simple, clean design that would let the content shine.

Infographic spreads have become a staple of the early pages of every issue. This one uses multiple components to show the effects of climate change on migratory birds.

Their goal has always been to make the story come to life, and the magazine began to see design not only as a platform for text and photos, but also as an essential element of storytelling. They expanded from just photos and text and included graphics and illustrations, providing a strong second visual element to accompany the world-class photography.

The last 15 years have seen these new visuals evolve into an essential element of their presentation. Info graphics now span full pages with multiple components. They allow National Geographic to delve into data journalism that would quickly bore readers if simply incorporated into a story and make less visual stories more appealing.

Pull out posters are included in issues every few months and allow room for elaborate design and illustration, this one translating the stories of Trajan’s Column. The column highlights the victories in battle of the Roman emperor Trajan, and the graphics take on motion on the web.

Generations of readers have waited at the mailbox to see what kind of map or poster each new issue might hold. Many readers have walls full of them, some have them tattooed on their ribcage (yours, truly) and some even pass them along to their grandchildren. The development of design and illustration has taken the publication beyond maps of the world and scenic photos. Recently, the wonders of ancient architectural feat Trajan’s Column were stretched across three pages. High-speed cameras allowed for a 50-photo spread of a cheetah at full speed. All of these are accompanied by fully interactive versions online, leading to a cohesive experience across platforms.


The Website

The Internet has rapidly evolved in the past 20 years, and National Geographic has taken full advantage of everything it has to offer. They’ve developed a robust website brimming with content to suit anyone’s fancy (or phone). Its diversity stretches from scientific analysis of viral videos to long feature articles. They’ve taken full advantage of HTML5, especially in the digital representation of the magazine, adding interactive components to further the experience of their print content. The website plays to their strengths by putting photos front and center, complementing the simple design on every page, which gets more minimal in photo-specific sections.

The website flows across all devices and the simplistic design lends itself to smartphones and tablets. Every headline you see rests under a beautiful photograph or video.

The website’s responsive design leads to a familiar experience across devices.

NatGeo realizes that readers are consuming web content differently than the traditional print reader and they’ve adapted their content to suit those needs without ignoring seasoned readers. News stories make up half of their homepage content, but the listicles and viral videos are becoming commonplace. They take the short, vibrant style pioneered by sites bike BuzzFeed and give it an education, with the intent of luring in smart, web savvy users less likely to commit to reading a full story. Viral videos are common, and always explained with science. NatGeo’s content is evolving with the reader and succeeding in maintaining its reputation for intelligence. “You can’t lose your soul,” Johns said.

The Magazine section of the website adds new dimensions to stories published in print. Almost every feature article is supplemented with multimedia components and some are turned into full-page HTML5 presentations. “Behind the Mask,” a story about the effects of explosive force on the brains of veterans, incorporates full-page photos and short sound bites of the soldiers. The pullout posters are given life online. Trajan’s Column becomes an animated tour circling up the tower telling the stories told by the carvings.

In addition to the elaborate pull out poster, Trajan’s column becomes a fully animated story online.

By translating the graphics in the monthly magazine into immersive online versions, National Geographic has bridged the gap between print and the web better than almost anyone in the industry.


Snapchat and beyond.

From the dawn of social media, National Geographic has made their presence felt, attaining massive amounts of followers on every platform on which they are present. Heavy following on social media is bolstered by their accessibility on mobile devices. With over 750 million interactions on Instagram alone since 2014, they lead the way in visual social media while tailoring content to readers’ needs. “We can learn what an audience wants, need and expects,” Johns said. “There are always new things to learn.”

Facebook lends to National Geographic’s striking visuals with its large thumbnails, perfect for catching reader’s eyes when scrolling through a busy timeline. The page posts 10–15 times per day with a mix of links leading to their website. The balance of their daily posts leans heavily towards eye-catching content, such as viral videos, photo galleries and select user photos from YourShot. The other half targets an audience looking for a read, plugging relevant news stories and online versions of the magazine’s feature articles.

On Facebook, caption contests do especially well. At least one YourShot picture is posted daily, this one with over 350 thousand interactions.

Many posts breach 50,000 likes, but those that foster user engagement surpass the rest. Ninety percent of National Geographic’s posts are links, with only 10 percent being photos. Though posting photos is infrequent, nine of their top ten posts of 2014 were photos, most of them being user generated and pulled directly from YourShot. Generating user engagement with photos directly is something NatGeo does well on Facebook, though not an area of emphasis. They leave that to their wildly popular Instagram account.

NatGeo and Instagram are a perfect match. Their following exceeds 17 million and grows by roughly 18,000 every day, with 180% percent growth in 2014. The National Geographic name is synonymous with photojournalism, when combined with personal brands of their award winning photographers generating buzz is easy.

Their extensive network of photographers provides striking images from around the world, but the bulk of the content comes from a select group. Ami Vitale, Steve McCurry and David Guttenfelder (Time’s 2013 Instagram photographer of the year) post frequently while on assignment. “We’ve kept it relatively exclusive,” Johns said.

The most common pictures come from photographers on assignment, but the posts are not exclusively editorial. Giving a number of photographers access to post on the account leads to diverse images but less consistency. Photos from a NatGeo Creative commercial shoots appear now and then as well as archival photos, occasionally relevant to a holiday or historic event. Some posts even contain the individual photographer’s watermark.

If the reputation of NatGeo and its photographers didn’t bring enough eyes to the account, they constantly interact with others through tagging, especially those under their own umbrella. The most commonly tagged account is @thephotosociety, whose description reads, “We are the contributing photographers to the National Geographic Society.” With 1.6 million followers itself, the tagging is mutually beneficial. Photographers posting often tag the groups and organizations they are covering and geotag their locations.

This shot of a Harp seal gathered more likes than any other NatGeo Instagram post, but pictures with over 500,000 likes are not uncommon.

NatGeo approaches Instagram as more than just a platform for photos — it’s also a place for shortform storytelling. More than 1/3 of their posts contain more than 500 characters. The style of writing varies by each photographer and is not restrained by the rules or editorial review. The best of them make you feel like you were behind the camera.

This combination of beautiful photos, diverse subjects, inter-account interaction and intimate storytelling make it no wonder why Johns calls NatGeo “a worldwide leader in Instagram.”

On Twitter, NatGeo capitalizes on their reputation for quality and intelligence. They rarely post visual content directly and opt to drive traffic back to their website with short headlines and links. The tweets come round the clock, and almost never interact with other users. When photos are posted, they frequently generate two or three times as much interaction as those without, but the almost 8 million followers seem satisfied with the current mix.

Their video content is split between their YouTube channel and the Video section of the website with surprisingly little overlap. The YouTube channel focuses on promoting the multiple TV channels with trailers and episode summaries, while also posting some short YouTube exclusive content.

The majority of videos hosted on the website are pointed, short news videos that fall under a number of sub-categories such as “Weird and Wild” and “Worlds Deadliest.” Some short films and mini docs are thrown into the mix. The quantity videos provides for their Twitter and Facebook feeds.

Mobile

The Adobe 2013 Mobile Survey found that 35% of mobile device users spend more than an hour every day on their devices. National Geographic is fighting for their share of that time with mobile exclusive content distributed across native and third party apps. In addition to this content, the monthly magazine is tailored to mobile and tablet editions, designed with the tastes of print readers in mind. “The devices make our content shine all the more,” Johns said.

NatGeo publishes a number of different apps for iPhone and Android users, many being travel guides, wilderness reference guides and one just for streaming their TV programs. In February of this year they launched their flagship mobile app, NatGeo View. View is available exclusively for iPhone users and is updated daily with editor-curated content. The content is the culmination of the best from the web, the magazine and their users. The “Daily Dozen” showcases 12 of the best pictures found on YourShot, and themed photo galleries by staff photographers are common. Articles from the magazine are edited and redesigned to suit a mobile audience.

View’s smooth design and interaction lends itself to smartphones. The app is ad-free, letting the simple prioritize the visual content.
“The devices make our content shine all the more,” Johns said, “and it’s nice to have that big, shiny screen.”

On Jan. 27, 2015 NatGeo became one of 11 companies (including Vice, CNN, People and Food Network) to partner with SnapChat in the new “Discover” portion app. The set up is similar to View. Users swipe right through five daily posts, including photo galleries, videos, blogs and pop quizzes. When you’ve reached the end of the daily content you are taken back to discovers homepage, where the button’s colors are inverted to tell you that you’ve all of today’s posts.

Discovers content is simple, quick to watch or read and particularly light. News stories are almost never present, but issues important to NatGeo are not forgotten. Today, you can learn about ISIS’s destruction of cultural relics on your bus ride or passing period. “The fun part is taking all the content you’re passionate about and putting it on all these platforms,” Johns said.

YourShot? Our shot.

Any lack of audience engagement is made up for by the creation of its own social media. YourShot provides a place where photographers can share their work with others, win contests, get feedback from NatGeo Editors and even get published in the magazine or on the web.

Photo Editor Sadie Quarrier and Photographer Cory Ruchards introduce the first YourShot assignment.After the curators of each assignment make their picks, they give feedback by publicly commenting on photos and hosting Google Hangouts where they discuss what made the winners stand out.

“An incredibly valuable community” is what Johns calls YourShot, and the content it produces is showing on all platforms. It began as a small section of the website where users could share photos amongst themselves and editors. Now select contributed photos occupy 3 to 4 pages in every magazine and are frequently found on the home page of the website and View. YourShot photos are frequently posted on social media as caption contests as well.

The way NatGeo incentivizes users to post on YourShot is simple. It’s even broken down into an equation on top of the assignments page. They run one themed “assignment” at a time, and leave the submission window open for 1–2 weeks. After the assignment closes the editors comb through the submissions, offering frequent feedback and ultimately picking their favorites. Their picks are compiled into a “story” of 20–30 photos, all of which could be featured in print and on the web.

Though Yourshot provides valuable content for NatGeo, Johns sees it as a way to tell stories: “We believe in the power of photography, and we want others to go out into the world and do it.”

Conclusion

National Geographic has proved time and time again that they will embrace new forms of journalism, in print digital and whatever lies ahead. Before the invention of the Internet or any form of digital media, NatGeo had established itself as a world-renowned publication.

It’s carried this reputation into the 21st century alongside journalism heavyweights like The New York Times while keeping pace with web savvy start ups like BuzzFeed and Vox. The simplistic, progressive design of the magazine has been seamlessly translated onto the web. Whether it be data visualization or animated graphics, NatGeo has played their hand and come out on top every time.

All of these innovations are service to the Society’s higher goals. As a media company, NatGeo has successfully used all of its available resources to further the public’s awareness of global issues and scientific understanding. The quest of going to everywhere their readers go is fueled by the mission of making the world better for all of those who inhabit it.

This report was produced for the final thesis in “J494: Critical Thinking About Design and Disruption,” the Spring 2015 Pollner Seminar at the University of Montana. To review the rest of the reports from our class, link here. To review our syllabus for the course, link here.