The National Geographic Logo: The History Behind The Brand

February 21, 2023

By: Gareth Mankoo

The National Geographic Logo: The History Behind The Brand

Coming up with a brand logo can be a laborious process, but it can also be incredibly fulfilling. Take a look at the National Geographic logo. It’s captured the world with a simple yellow rectangle. It inspires instant recall of the brand, sometimes even without the word mark. A yellow rectangle is enough to subconsciously remember the brand.

One can find several interpretations behind what inspired the logo and what each part of it stands for. This mutual admiration of what could be considered one of the most straightforward logos ever created makes the logo so unique.

So, what has inspired such an example of simplicity? Was this always how the iconic logo looked? Why is it rectangular? Why is it yellow? Get answers to this and more as you read on.

The evolution of the National Geographic logo

Chemayeff & Geismar, a specialist branding agency, designed the National Geographic logo. They were briefed to create a neutral and usable logo design across the company’s scientific activities, which included magazines, literature to make people aware of their activities and endeavors, and even films.

The logo was to become an integral part not only of the branding but also a visual mnemonic for all activities of the brand.

A booklet called “Identify: Basic principles of identity design in the iconic trademarks of Chermayeff & Geismar” details the brilliance of the process. In a wordy sentence, it states:

“An extensive audit, combined with limited consumer research, showed that the simple yellow border logo inspired by the trademarked cover of National Geographic magazine is a strong brand identifier for National Geographic and that the color yellow itself generates relatively strong brand recognition.”

We follow the journey of the logo from its inception in 1997 to its iconic presence on digital platforms today.

1997 to 2001: The first variation

1997-2001
1997-2001

The first National Geographic logo arrived in all its simplicity. It comprised two essential parts: the left-aligned text, with letters written in all caps, and the iconic yellow rectangle. This treatment had a unique effect on the overall unit of the logo.

While the visual element was a vertical frame, the overall logo (with the text) appeared like a horizontal rectangle. To make a stronger statement, the designers used a serif font to represent the wordmark. The logo font used in the design was close to Transcend Semibold.

One aspect of the first logo that didn’t carry forward in future iterations is how “Channel” was treated as part of the overall wordmark without giving it any special mention or highlight.

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2001 to 2005: One with added depth

2001-2005
2001-2005

The new millennium brought in new thinking. The team at National Geographic decided to separate “Channel” from the rest of the wordmark. This move became a common practice in future iterations. There was no change to the yellow rectangle or the top two lines of the wordmark.

A yellow line (matching the color of the rectangle) appeared horizontally. It separated the last word from the rest of the logo. “Channel” was now written in a smaller, sans-serif font, making it visibly different from the rest of the logo.

2005 to 2016: A subtle elegance

2005-2016
2005-2016

Once again, the team decided to change the treatment “Channel” received in the logo’s wordmark. The logo lost the horizontal yellow line that separated the last word. Instead, “Channel” was written in a larger font. In this variant, the font was switched to a serif, heralding the dawn of the digital age.

The designers represented all three words of the logo in the same font. “Channel” was given a gray brand color to distinguish it from the other two words written in black. This logo was accepted and used for nearly eleven years.

2016 to today: Minimalism at its finest

2016-current
2016-current

The final change to the logo’s design came in 2016. The company, which was now rapidly diversifying, wanted to combine all its branding elements into one name. National Geographic developed into a society, a publishing house, a magazine, and a travel companion for millions.

Simply calling it a channel diminished the brand's impact on the world. The management decided to drop the word “Channel” from the logo unit. This move made it more wholesome for the entire ecosystem it served. The modern logo employs the NatGeo SemiBold font.

The LOGO.com versions of the National Geographic logo design

The yellow rectangle that serves as the National Geographic logo is instantly recognizable. But could the famous design be reimagined?

Design similar versions of the National Geographic logo below and take them home for free!

National Geographic logo variation
Click the image to customize this logo
National Geographic logo variation
Click the image to customize this logo

Thanks to a few subtle tweaks, we now have not one but two National Geographic logo variations to take inspiration from.

The impact of the National Geographic logo today

Source: National Geographic Society
Source: National Geographic Society

Unlike many logo redesigns, the National Geographic logo did not experience unprecedented changes in its structure. The basic layout of the logo remained intact, with the visual element on the left and the left-aligned text on the right.

As the world has turned digital, it recalls the robust yellow frame that indicates that the world is put into perspective. The organization has come a long way, from a generation that grew up reading magazines from National Geographic to those who retweet their content.

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What do rectangle logos represent?

While the wordmark experienced a few changes, what remained resolute through change is the rectangular shape that forms the National Geographic frame.

Source: LOGO.com
Source: LOGO.com

Design experts attribute the longevity and recognizability of the logo to its shape. The rectangular logo shape is intended to represent the shape of a certificate of honor. The yellow color denotes the sun, as it is the source of sustenance for life on Earth.

Some theories suggest that the vertical, rectangular logo symbolizes the National Geographic magazine, among the most subscribed publications worldwide. While this may still be true, the fact remains that the use of a simple rectangle is ingenious.

The brand has cleverly used the rectangle in several advertising campaigns, elevating it to the status of an entity representing the brand on its own.

A brief history of National Geographic

The National Geographic Society was founded in 1988 in Washington, D.C. The purpose of the society was to increase knowledge of all things geography.

It was founded by a group of thirty-three individuals that comprised teachers, lawyers, cartographers, military men, and, of course, geographers.

The varying disciplines empathized with the ordinary person’s exposure to the world's geography as America began exploring its fellow nations on the blue planet with more zeal.

Source: Wikipedia
Source: Wikipedia

The first issue of the National Geographic Society magazine was published only nine months after the Society's launch. Initially, the publication needed to pique readers' interest, and the readership begged to be higher.

As the photography in the magazine began improving, the number of copies sold began growing steadily. The money earned from the magazine sales enabled expeditions and research into uncharted territories across the globe. All of this fed the insightful stories in the magazine.

Source: National Geographic
Source: National Geographic

Cut to the present day, and National Geographic has blossomed into one of the world’s leading non-profit organizations, leading the path towards educating laypersons and teaching them to empathize with the varied ecosystems around us.

As for photography, National Geographic is a second-to-none magazine.

Frequently asked questions about the National Geographic logo

What are some commonly asked questions about the National Geographic logo? Get your questions answered with these three FAQs.

1. What is the meaning behind the National Geographic logo?

The sun, represented by the color yellow in the National Geographic logo, illuminates every part of the Earth. Black for the backdrop, and white for the text, make up the rest of the color scheme. It's a lovely symbolism for the purity and elegance of the cosmos.

2. Is the National Geographic logo copyrighted?

Yes, it is. As a trademark, you can only use the National Geographic logo with permission. Only in the context of a formal partnership are they willing to allow third parties to make use of their trademark or other brand assets.

3. Does the National Geographic logo have a golden ratio?

That's right, and people believe that's part of the logo's allure. The National Geographic logo features a simple golden rectangle (comparable to the golden ratio), represented by the yellow color. An inner width to an internal length of 1:1.618 is the same as an outer width to an external length of 1:1.618.

Bottom line

As the world of branding discovers new styles, with automation and artificial intelligence taking over in a big way, little compares to the minimalistic beauty and effectiveness of the National Geographic logo.

Even with several theories speculating on the reason for the success of the logo, the mysterious charm of the logo continues to be one of the most beautiful pieces of art created by selfless society.

Today, people from across the world from different walks of life and age groups understand our planet a little better, even if they have never seen most of it. This credit goes to the National Geographic Society and its unmistakable mark in a big way.

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