Field notes on color: National Geographic

Because National Geographic emphasizes so much on its imagery, its color section is extremely important. On its Style Guide website, National Geographic says that “Color should be used sparingly to indicate special importance, calls to action, or branding.” While flipping through the magazine, it’s clear that color is used for emphasis — there’s very little color outside of the images.

Nearly all type is in black and white (and occasionally gray) which helps balance against intense colors. This also doesn’t allow the reader to get distracted by the type on the page — rather, the reader’s eye is always drawn to the images first. The most eye-catching, vibrant and intense colors are limited to images; even graphics use more opaque/translucent colors which makes them less eye-catching.

There are a few key brand colors that National Geographic uses consistently throughout the website, with the most recognizable being the mustard-colored yellow used on the borders on the cover. On the Style Guide website, this yellow #FFCC00, is National Geographic’s primary brand color and “should be used for most accents or calls to action.” Hence, the emphasis on the cover makes sense as it is a call to action for the reader to pick up the magazine. The yellow is also used in front-of-book sectional names and sometimes on other coverlines. This yellow is more evident online, as it is used for quite a few accents. Personally, I think the yellow works extremely well as it is still fun and modern while still classic and timeless — it’s been National Geographic’s color for so long that it’s a pretty direct connection between the color and the brand.


From National Geographic’s Style Guide online. Primary–1 and Primary–x1 are secondary colors that are used less frequently.

The coverlines on the March 2018 issue.

This seems to be the only brand color that transitions between both print and online, besides the neutral black, white and gray shades. There are a number of colors also used for “Social Brands,” which is for online and social media content. These are the signature colors for each of the social media brands, so nothing unexpected. These colors are also very intense and mostly primary colors — nothing particularly unusual or out of the ordinary, just bright, eye-catching colors.

Because National Geographic sticks to color mostly in its photography — and these colors are realistic, so not heavily filtered or edited (except perhaps to be more vibrant and eye-catching) — they remain classic and timeless. If we were to flip through a current issue a decade or two decades later, these images would still be just as beautiful and just as realistic then as they are now.

The composition of this photo and the colors in it immediately draws the eye to the colorful plastic.

Magazine spread images from March 2018 issue.