The Atlantic’s elegant redesign mines its 162-year history to prime for the future
Today The Atlantic unveiled an elegant redesign—a new look that mines its 162-year history while looking to the future. The move comes on the heels of the magazine’s introduction of a three-tiered subscription model in September and alongside the arrival of its new subscriber-only app.
Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Goldberg says the goal of the redesign was twofold. One aim was to “raise the design up to the level of the words,” he says. “Given the history of The Atlantic, we always placed a premium on words. In the past, one view was that if you were spending too much time on design and art, you were going against the seriousness and sobriety of The Atlantic, but a counterview is that art and design are there to help the words be understood. That was the governing impulse of what we’re trying to do.”
The redesign also sought to create a distinctive yet unified visual identity for not only the magazine but its various platforms and communications—something Goldberg believes is crucial given that 30 million readers come to the publication each month across channels. “The flag had changed maybe 20 times in 162 years, so there was no holy grail of design at The Atlantic,” he says. “Over the decades, we sort of accreted design features, so it was like 17 years of wallpaper.”
The boldest element of the redesign is the new logo, a single letter A, with the wordmark that until now served as its flag now appearing in smaller type just below it. Other aspects include a spare, less-cluttered cover—this month’s cover features only a photograph of a dripping blue and red handprint, its silhouette mimicking the United States. A single cover line reads “How to Stop a Civil War,” encapsulating this month’s central theme.
The redesign was led by Creative Director Peter Mendelsund and Senior Art Director Oliver Munday, a respected book publishing design team who came on board full-time at the magazine last December.
“The first thing we did was perform an extensive archaeology of the company, a kind of psychoanalysis,” says Mendelsund of how the design process began. “Because it’s a 162-year old magazine, that involved a lot of historical research. It was about getting an extremely deep and intuitive sense of what the company is, its principles and ethos.”
The work involved interviewing members of the team and a ton of reading of past stories, among other things. The point, Mendelsund says, was to get a sense of what defined “‘Atlanticness’—an awkward word that we heard a lot in the opening conversations,” he says. “But only after we really understood ‘Atlanticness’ did we start making things.”
As for what “Atlanticness” stands for, Mendelsund says it’s a “really interesting dialectic between smart, rigorous, historically informed forthright journalism and a kind of radicalism.” For example, only after all the digging did Mendelsund discover that the magazine was founded as an abolitionist publication.
Eschewing the current zeitgeist that sees magazine design largely informed by what’s happening online, Medelsund and Munday turned toward tradition. The redesign makes use of classical grids and typography, and the team even created a suite of custom engraving-style adornments based on The Atlantic’s nautical vernacular.
Mendelsund explains “we weren’t borrowing tropes from the digital space, trying to bully the reader’s attention. For us as designers, we wanted to capture the classicism and historical continuity of the magazine while presenting something new. You don’t want to create something fusty and old-fashioned, though you do want to remind people we’re one of the longest-lived magazines in the country.”
“It was more about the process of distillation—how do we capture the spirit and history here—than about how do we make a cool magazine that will stand out among magazines now,” adds Munday. “We did less looking around and more looking within.”
A for Atlantic
And then there’s the single-letter logo, the most striking aspect of the redesign. The magazine’s last full redesign happened in 2009, and during that time the team had pulled an old wordmark, which was then redrawn. “It was a very deliberate and direct gesture to history,” says Munday.
With the current redesign, Mendelsund and Munday took a bolder step. The single A was “the first thing we tried, and there was a brief moment of excitement between the two of us,” says Medelsund. They then “closed the document, tried ... over a hundred different logos and compositions of the cover as a starting point, and made our way back there.”
You might notice that unlike the previous italicized wordmark, the A is now in roman, or normal, type. The upright letter conveys more authority, Mendelsund says. “Italics are typically not meant to work as a main graphical components but rather call attention in a body of text that is upright.”
As for the typeface, “we started with a condensed capital A that pointed toward an old version of The Atlantic logo drawn by Boston Type Foundry in the mid-19th century,” Munday explains. At first, it wasn’t quite right, so they made some adjustments. “We needed something that felt weightier or slightly more bespoke.” The design team added a notch to the top of the A and adjusted the feet. They then hired typographer Jeremy Mickel for final refinement.
That process also led to the creation of a new custom Atlantic condensed typeface, a full alphabet based on the original Boston Type Foundry sample used for the A, which will now be used throughout the magazine’s feature well.
As with many rebrands today, the A also fulfills the role of representing the brand succinctly in shrinking media spaces. “At first, when Peter and Oliver started talking about this, I was intrigued and a bit shocked at how different that would be,” says Goldberg. “But Peter pulled out his phone and went to our app, and it turns out that we’re using it as a mark already. The argument had a powerful logic to it—we want to associate The Atlantic with the simplest, most beautiful mark possible, and it turns out we were already leaning on that A in a lot of ways.”
Literary fans might also appreciate the A’s serendipitous nod to the magazine’s roots, Goldberg adds. One of the magazine’s earliest writers was Nathaniel Hawthorne, who served as a civil war correspondent and arguably is most famously known as the author of “The Scarlet Letter.”
Overall, Goldberg believes the redesign represents a marriage of “elegance and urgency,” he says. “One of the things I was worried about was that it would feel too stately, too still, but this feels like a magazine that’s on top of the main issues of the day, while using art in interesting and contemporary ways to help the stories make their point.”