Changing Planet

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC’S CARTOGRAPHIC TYPEFACES

Our maps have long been known for their distinctive typefaces. But few outside the Society know little of the history that lies behind them.

Until the early 1930s, most of our maps were hand-  lettered—a slow and tedious process requiring great patience and even greater skill. An alternate process—that of setting names in movable type, pulling an impression on gummed paper that was then pasted down on the map—often yielded less than durable or clearly readable type.

The Society’s first Chief Cartographer, Albert H. Bumstead, believed the answer lied in photo-graphic type. Laboring long  hours in his home workshop, he discovered that existing typefaces did not lend themselves to Society standards: our map enlargement and reduction factors often caused small hairline letters to break up while larger block letters tended to fill up. To this end, he invented a machine for composing map type photographically that ultimately improved overall type legibility. Once this photolettering process was refined, it was applied to our United States map supplement in the May 1933 National Geographic.

Shortly thereafter, Society cartographer Charles E. Riddiford was tasked with designing typefaces with much improved photomechanical reproductive qualities. He devised a set so attractive and legible that these typefaces are still used (in a digital format) today. These patented fonts were designed with the purpose of reflecting, as well as accentuating designated map features. If you study our reference maps and atlases closely, it’s quite evident that every feature is asso- ciated with a specific typeface. Color and typographic weight (from light to bold) further adds to this distinction.

Juan José Valdés
The Geographer
Director of Editorial and Research
National Geographic Maps

Juan José Valdés is The Geographer and National Geographic Maps' Director of Editorial and Research. He guides and assists the Map Policy Committee in setting border representations, disputed territories, and naming conventions for National Geographic. As NG Map's Director of Editorial and Research, he is responsible for ensuring the accuracy and consistency of its maps and map products.
  • Mathieu Christe

    Thank you for this interesting article on maps and very nice illustration. Would it be possible to receive a higher quality scan of it, in order to appreciate the variations of the letter shapes?
    Thanks in advance, with my best regards,

    Mathieu

  • […] was done by hand, a very labor intensive process.   Chief Cartographer, Albert H. Bumstead began experimenting with photographic type.  After much trial and error, Bumstead invented a machine that composed map type photographically […]

  • Ian Anderson

    @mathieu – if you open the image directly it’s a little better -http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/files/2012/02/Font-sheet-468×1024.jpg

  • Stephen Coles

    Interesting! I’d love to see a large scan as well. From what I can tell, some of these are at least based on existing typefaces, such as Albertus,commonly used in the UK, and Kursivschrift, the cartographic family from Germany. But most of these designs are entirely different from the fonts graphic designers know and use.

  • Miles S

    The larger version is available — just change the image name: http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/files/2012/02/Font-sheet.jpg

  • Arrr Matey

    Would it be possible to receive a higher quality scan of your illustration in order that I may better steal your typeface?
    Thanks in advance,
    -Cap’n

  • Ciantic
  • kinomedia

    Do you have any plans to make these available?

    • Juan Valdes

      To date, no plans to make these proprietary type faces available to the public.

  • Ray G

    Interesting article. And, as a card-carrying member of the grammar police, let me take issue with two things:

    If “few … know little” then many know much. No, no to the double negative.

    The past tense of “lie” is “lay”, so “the answer lay in photo-graphic type”, not “the answer lied in photo-graphic type.” (“lied” means “told a lie”.)

    Please and thank you.

    • Juan Valdes

      Ray G:

      Duly noted.

  • Laura Muñoz

    I would like to know more about A.H. Bumstead and his work as cartographer. Could you please give me more information? Thanks in advance, Laura

  • Mathieu Christe

    Dear Juan,

    Today, I’ve received a strange email from you (subject: Documents Uploaded). It looks like your account has been hacked, you should change your password.

    Best,

    Mathieu

  • Christine Bush

    NG will rue the day it chose to stick its head in the sand and not share its typefaces. By locking up your cartographic expertise and clinging to an outdated model of proprietary “intellectual property” NG only hastens its growing irrelevance as a source of knowledge.

    Please: make your fonts, your base maps, your color palettes available for new generations of cartographers to use. Only by doing so will the NG tradition of cartographic excellence continue. Otherwise, NG is nothing more than a box of unwanted paper at the yard sale, which is very sad indeed.

  • Gordon

    I have one of these maps … the 1960 (italic 601 40/64 ) to be exact. I would love to know more about it , if you have the time can you please direct me to more info .
    Thank you

  • John Christian Stoddart

    Although realizing I’m a little late to this post, I would be very grateful if you could please point me to more information about AH Bumstead’s photocomposing machine.

    Thanks in advance,

    John

  • RobinGoodfellow

    “Albert H. Bumstead, believed the answer lied in photo-graphic type.” Seriously? Please tell me this was a typo and you actually have an editor who knows it should read, “the answer lay in photographic type.”

  • […] Geographic’s cartographic fonts seem to include a few styles with at least three […]

  • Brett Henley

    National Geographic employed Matthew Carter in late 1960’s to clean up (Riddiford’s & AH Bumstead’s type) and create a new photo-lettering NG typeface for it’s maps. All the beauty you see is from his genius.

  • […] like the 1889 route of the Abraham Lincoln funeral train, and incredibly specific resources like a 1960s chart of the magazine’s cartographic […]

About the Blog

Researchers, conservationists, and others share stories, insights and ideas about Our Changing Planet, Wildlife & Wild Spaces, and The Human Journey. More than 50,000 comments have been added to 10,000 posts. Explore the list alongside to dive deeper into some of the most popular categories of the National Geographic Society’s conversation platform Voices.

Opinions are those of the blogger and/or the blogger’s organization, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Posters of blogs and comments are required to observe National Geographic’s community rules and other terms of service.

Voices director: David Braun (dbraun@ngs.org)

Social Media