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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

Comments

  1. Mathieu Christe
    Geneva, Switzerland
    November 4, 2013, 2:19 pm

    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

  2. Laura Muñoz
    México D. F.
    October 14, 2013, 10:07 am

    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

  3. Ray G
    Japan
    July 24, 2013, 3:32 am

    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
      July 24, 2013, 7:19 am

      Ray G:

      Duly noted.

  4. kinomedia
    VT
    July 24, 2013, 2:34 am

    Do you have any plans to make these available?

    • Juan Valdes
      July 24, 2013, 7:14 am

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

  5. Ciantic
    July 23, 2013, 3:28 pm
  6. Arrr Matey
    The High Seas
    July 23, 2013, 2:12 pm

    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

  7. Miles S
    July 23, 2013, 11:29 am

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

  8. Stephen Coles
    Oakland, CA
    July 23, 2013, 11:08 am

    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.

  9. Ian Anderson
    UK
    July 23, 2013, 10:56 am

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

  10. [...] 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 [...]

  11. Mathieu Christe
    Geneva, Switzerland
    August 4, 2012, 5:27 am

    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