January 27, 2007

The Origin of the Yellow Rectangle

The National Geographic Society was founded on this day in 1888. But when and where did that iconic yellow rectangle originate? Its history is pretty simple and straightforward, actually:

Changes in the design of National Geographic magazine's cover during the 1970s indicated their understanding of the prevalence and power of their readers' collective visual literacy. By the time I arrived at the Society as a student intern, its practitioners were well into reformulations and associated debates about the magazine's "voice". The publishers had decided to update the design of the magazine, moving toward a crisper, more modern graphic style overall. One aspect of the change was that the intricate floral pattern that had decorated the margins of the magazine's cover for so many years would be replaced by the now-familiar plain yellow rectangle, which was to become not just the new border for the magazine but also the new logo for the Society overall.

The publishers understood that this change would not be trivial to effect, however. The magazine's readership was doggedly faithful, and readers associated the distinguished botanical motif with an air of sophistication and authority that the Society had managed to achieve. The move from etched laurels to rectilinear yellow would be jarring indeed. So the producers decided to effect the transition piecemeal over several years. Issue by issue they removed parts of the floral margin literally bit-by-bit until it was gone, leaving the margins border-free for a while – with just a ghost line of the laurel-encircled globe at top center. Then, over time, they built up the yellow margins, ultimately arriving at the rectilinear border that we recognize now.

National Geographic's evolution also reveals another aspect of the craft of caption-making. Its producers understood that there was more than one way to read the magazine. Some people would read it cover-to-cover; others would choose particular articles of interest; others would merely flip through the pages, looking at the pictures and reading the captions. This manner of reading was not to be disdained or taken lightly: it constituted a significant manner of readership, so much so that it warranted employing a distinct group of people as caption-writers. They worked with the researchers, writers, and designers to create pithy accompaniments to the pictures. Captions were to speak directly to the image, not being redundant with the meaning of the image but supplementing it by explaining ambiguities, adding detail, and so on. Flipping through the magazine to look at the pictures and read the short text blocks could indeed be a rich, informative experience in its own right.

The rectangle is a frame for content. Ingenious, really. National Geographic stands out among other publications for keeping things very visual, with large print, large captions, easy to read all in a relatively small package. I've learned a thing or two from studying their design techniques.

Next week at this time I'll be staring at a QuarkXpress template, trying to get all the pieces to fit. But I'm looking forward to what the semester brings, especially since it's my last. We always come up with a few gems.

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