The Atlantic | Field Notes | Color

The Atlantic’s color palette is simple. Black, white, an accent of red and a hint of teal. Red is used to draw attention, such as in The Table of Contents to draw the reader’s eye to the page number (the purpose of the TOC) (Figure 1). It is used for subheadings (Figure 2), pull quotes (Figure 3), photo labels (Figure 4), end marks (Figure 5), section templates (Figure 6) and section labels (Figure 7). It may look like it’s used everywhere, but it’s used with purpose. Red catches the attention of the reader. It helps draw the eye from one element to the next, and either points out a separate section to give the reader context or highlights an important piece of information.

Figure 1 – Red Numbers in TOC

Figure 2 – Red Subheadings & Teal

Figure 3 – Red Line in Pull Quotes

From what I can tell, Teal is only used to differentiate reader-written or reader-related content (Figure 2 & 4). This may be done in order to make sure the readers know this is not the voice or view of The Atlantic. I really enjoy the use of the teal, and though at first I thought I would want to see it elsewhere, it’s a nice pop and I like that it only has one function. It could be confusing to have two bright accent colors with different uses. Lastly, The Atlantic employs white to let the pages breathe, and does so well, using it to draw the reader’s eye to content that often holds that “Atlantic Red” (Figure 2).

Figure 4 – Reader-Related Content in Teal

Though I like The Atlantic’s simple and understated approach to color and believe they generally use color well, there are instances where I think a color other than red is more appropriate. Red isn’t needed for the photo labels (Figure 5), as it isn’t a necessity that the reader’s eye be drawn to the number on the photo. A black label could work better here, or The Atlantic could consider adding a shade of gray to the palette to help designers choose an alternative to red when such a bold color isn’t warranted.

Figure 4 – Red Photo Labels

Figure 5 – Red End Mark

Figure 6 – Red in Section Template

Figure 7 – Red Section Labels

Photography in The Atlantic can range from bold, bright and graphic to black and white. Photos and illustrations play well with the limited color palette and rarely compete. One disadvantage of the limited color palette is that art directors and designers can only use photography and illustration to set the tone for a story that is not a feature (where designers can use other colors). This means that photography and illustration can never be lackluster and must be strong enough to do the job alone.

One disadvantage of a limited color palette is the inability to create hierarchy with color. Instead of using color to do so, The Atlantic uses size. Bigger, bolder text and lines are used to delineate importance and separate content. This approach really works. I think the limitation of the color palette even makes the design of The Atlantic that much stronger, as designers have a huge limitation that leads to more creative design decisions and allows the photography to shine. One such place is in the Features section, where designers can design with colors other than their standard palette. The Features section really pops while still staying on brand (Figure 8).

Figure 8 – Features Colors

The Atlantic’s use of red and black display it as a magazine with more serious content. But the photography and illustrations are what sets The Atlantic apart, and the limited color palette is what allows the art this power. When readers flip to the Table of Contents, what they notice isn’t the red and black type. The red is used so subtly (in a way that helps the reader), that the reader may not even realize The Atlantic only employs two main colors. Instead, what they notice are the beautiful photos and illustrations, which is why I believe The Atlantic’s color palette truly works.