VOICES Voices Icon Ideas and Insight From Explorers



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


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

  2. Brett Henley
    Highlands Ranch, CO
    January 6, 2016, 11:15 am

    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.

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

  4. RobinGoodfellow
    February 7, 2015, 1:58 pm

    “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.”

  5. John Christian Stoddart
    Caracas, Venezuela
    February 4, 2015, 8:48 am

    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,


  6. Gordon
    Milwaukee Wi
    December 18, 2014, 12:26 am

    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

  7. Christine Bush
    Mountain View, California
    October 11, 2014, 2:50 pm

    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.

  8. 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.



  9. 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

  10. Ray G
    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.

  11. kinomedia
    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.

  12. Ciantic
    July 23, 2013, 3:28 pm
  13. 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,

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

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

  15. 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.

  16. Ian Anderson
    July 23, 2013, 10:56 am

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

  17. […] 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 […]

  18. 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,