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Read the latest from our editors and photographers, get photo tips, or comment on the latest issue.

The Process

Posted Jul 3,2010

You're eating a Fourth of July hot dog and—BOOM!—a firework causes you to drop it. No worries. A quick pick-up and you're safe to start eating again, right? Wrong.

According to food-science research at Clemson University, there is no five-second rule. It's the zero-second rule. Writes Catherine Barker in our July issue, "salmonella and other bacteria can survive up to four weeks on dry surfaces and transfer to food immediately upon contact."

As a designer at NatGeo, I'm often focused on solemn subjects like child labor and debt relief. So when a quirky story like this is pitched for the magazine, I relish (pun intended) the opportunity to create a quirky visual. Quirky or not, a strong visual should surprise. It should pop off the page and suck you in. In this case, slides of salmonella certainly weren't going to do that. But I had an idea for something that would.
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Posted Mar 18,2010

I just returned from Spain, where National Geographic won 22 awards at the 2010 Malofiej International Infographics Summit. Here's a full list of the winners from around the globe.

Senior graphic editor Fernando Baptista (third from left, above) won 4 individual awards, including a Bronze for his portfolio of hand-drawn infographics. He also wrote an essay in this year's Malofiej catalog, in which he makes an ardent case for graphics with substance:

"To make a graphic, one should never be a slave to the fashion of the moment if this takes us even slightly away from the graph’s essential goal: to maximize the understandability of information using any resource at hand."

This is sage advice for both beginning and seasoned infographers. Here are a few more gems from his essay, Style With Substance:

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Posted Jan 13,2010

Healthcare_layoutDesigning a graphic is like writing a story. You can't include all your material, nor can you present it with uniform emphasis. To engage readers, you have to selectively edit and then order your information into a narrative. In other words, what is most important for people to see and in what order?

Not every reader will agree with our choices. Our health care graphic from the January issue (left, click to enlarge) has provoked a healthy debate around the blogosphere. Some people love it; others loathe it. The issue isn't just premiums or public options. Many bloggers are talking about our process.

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Posted Nov 24,2009

If you want to be a designer or art director, master Pictionary. Seriously, play it ALL THE TIME. Even if you don't own the board game, draw stuff on scraps of paper and make your friends guess what it is. That's what I do every day. Ideas have to start somewhere, and for me, the process begins with a fat, black marker.

For example, our November issue featured a page on homemade solar ovens (above). We had the boxes, the glass, the crumpled newspaper. The photographer wanted to know how to shoot them. Sketch, sketch, scribble. Done.

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Posted Nov 10,2009

There's something growing inside our October issue, and it's not a redwood. It's a pumpkin. And you won't believe how much it weighs now.

To illustrate "Pumped Up," our article on the world's largest pumpkins, we first juxtaposed a seed specially bred to grow giant pumpkins with the garden variety (above left). Photo editor Susan Welchman and I liked the shot, but we thought it would be cooler if the giant seed were sprouting. So we entrusted the seed to Elena Sheveiko, our resident green thumb.

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Posted Nov 5,2009


Usually when I walk by the office of senior graphics editor Fernando Baptista, I see him hunkered over a drafting table, sketching in pencil or watercolor. A few months ago, I saw him sculpting in clay. What exactly? I didn't know. The forms looked like decomposing brownies. Fernando saw something different: five stages in the formation of Tsingy de Bemaraha, Madagascar's limestone forest.

Fernando has used this process before to depict squid, barnacled whales, and a baby mammoth, but this was his first landscape. When I asked him, "Why clay?" I expected to hear how working in three dimensions adds mass and realism to his work. Instead, he said, "because it's fun!"

Here's how Fernando built a stone forest in 5 simple steps:

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Posted Aug 19,2009

The alarm went off at four. The men dressed quickly, piled into their vehicles, and drove to a lake in the mountains at the base of a massive rockfall. In the icy light of their headlamps, the limestone glowed like a cemetery of newly-risen ghosts. They opened the back of the van and together lowered her stiff body to the ground. She was naked save for the clear plastic in which she was wrapped. They had to hurry; the sun would be up soon.

When two park rangers rolled up an hour later, they could not believe what they were seeing. Four men in dark clothes were carrying what appeared to be a naked, spear-wielding woman above their heads as if regal pallbearers. Two others followed behind, burdened with lights and equipment. As the rangers approached, heavy clouds smeared the last stain of red from the dawn.

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Posted Jul 29,2009
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Not too long ago, senior design editor John Baxter designed souvenir programs for the Ringling Bros. circus. "Step right up!" his booklets proclaimed. "See the Human Comet! Bareback Jugglers! Elephants! The Globe of Death!"

The other day I asked if his time under the big top inspired his design for our July story on America's state fairs (above). "I suppose it did," he said. "It's an old circus billboard technique: shout with big type, then explain with small."

John came to this solution in a roundabout way.

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Posted Jun 30,2009


Congratulations! The Your Shot special issue hit newsstands today (June 30). We may have done the editing, writing and design, but you took the pictures—101 of our favorite photographs submitted by readers since Your Shot debuted in March 2006.

How did we pick the pics we picked? There's no magic formula. Personally, I'm drawn to images that make me feel something, be it joy, sorrow, suprise or wonder. So that's how I structured the issue: four chapters, four emotions. The selection process took months, but for photo editor Susan Welchman and I, it was worth every moment. These two videos explain why:

1. Susan and I describe why we love editing Your Shot.

2. Susan and I share some favorite images from more than 100,000 Your Shot submissions.

—Oliver Uberti

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Filed Under: Digital Photography, Photography, The Process
Posted Jun 18,2009

Luckily for us, senior graphics editor Sean McNaughton is a vector graphics wizard. In our recent Energy Special Issue, he used bright color and playful shapes to transform eye-numbing tables of carbon emissions data into eye-catching art (above). When I asked how he picked his palette, Sean said, “Honestly, I just messed around with colors I like.”


This was not the answer I expected. Immediately, I imagined Josef Albers, the great color theorist, tossing in his grave.

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Posted Jun 7,2009

I try not to act like a child at the office. I wear crisp shirts, proofread emails, and treat all artists with respect even when their work makes me want to jump up and down and throw things. So it was with great chagrin that I stumbled across the blog, Tiny Art Director, which holds a funhouse mirror up to the profession and makes my efforts seem in vain.

You see, the Tiny Art Director is a four-year-old girl. In each post, she commands her artist—and father—Bill Zeman to make, revise and often scrap paintings of dinosaurs and monkeys. (That T.A.D. and National Geographic both love dinosaurs and monkeys is not lost on me.)


"I'm going to tell you what to draw," she says in one post. "Draw a dragon sneaking up on a girl." Zeman obliges (above). Her critique? "Daddy it's not supposed to be like that! He has dog legs! I'm so mad at you! I'm going to erase those legs! Daddy why did you do those legs???" Tiny Art Director then collapses into tears. "Job Status: Rejected"

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Posted May 21,2009

Logo designers love hidden symbols. Take Fedex. In 1994, when Lindon Leader—then senior design director at Landor Associates, San Francisco—was developing concepts for the new Federal Express logo, he realized, “If you put a lower-case ‘x’ to the right of a capital ‘E’ (Ex) you can begin to see a hint of an arrow, though it is clumsy and extremely abstract.”

Magazine designers enjoy type tricks, too. In our new June issue, design editor Elaine Bradley found a clever way to arrange the headline for a story about a 9th-century Chinese shipwreck.


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Posted May 18,2009

For our recent article on Fermi estimation (April 2009), we invited readers to guess the number of jelly beans in a cylindrical jar. Some wrote to us to gloat about their guesses. Others wondered how on Earth we came up with an exact total of 4,466 jelly beans. In truth, I counted every single bean by hand, marking each hundred on a scrap of paper. It took nearly two hours.

Here’s the real question: How long did it take 10 staff members to eat 4,466 jelly beans? (Hint: On average, I ate about 12 a day, four times more than anyone else.)

Submit your guesses in the comments below. I’ll post the answer there on Wednesday.

—Oliver Uberti

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Filed Under: The Process
Posted May 13,2009

Press play to watch the design evolve.

How did you make this map? —Kelly J
Kelly, I'm glad you asked. Our design process begins and ends with research.

In the spring of 2008, one of our editors read that the U.S. Board on Geographical Names had renamed 16 valleys, creeks, and other sites employing the term “squaw” because, as it turns out, many Native Americans consider “the S word” a profane term for female genitalia. Intrigued, we wondered what other placenames really mean.

By July, an eager intern had assembled a few pages of Native American placenames—and what seemed like their translations. But we soon learned that finding an accurate translation isn’t easy. Centuries worth of conflicting theories abound.

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Posted May 6,2009


When photo editor Susan Welchman and I were asked to produce a page (above, right) on the 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, our first thought—as always—was "What's the picture?" Oil-covered birds? Too predictable.
    "Susan," I said, "why don't we make our own oil spill?"
    I was only half-joking.

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Posted May 6,2009


Hi. My name is Oliver. I'd like to welcome you to a new blog here on ngm.com, called The Process. Every so often I'll share stories behind the award-winning art, maps and designs of National Geographic. Does a painting or graphic or photo in the magazine ever make you wonder, "How did they do that?" Let me know. I'll dig around and report back.

—Oliver Uberti

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