National Geographic

Arie Altena

This review is an excerpt from the book Website Graphics Now, an international source book on the best in Global site design. Website Graphics Now was edited by Mediamatic and published in Spring 1999 by BIS Publishers in co-operation with Thames and Hudson.

Well-known around the world since 1889, a monthly magazine, a financier of geographical expeditions, maker of TV programs about wildlife and nature, National Geographic has a reputation at stake. It has no choice but to make one of the best and most successful sites in the world. It is, after all, the largest non-profit scientific and educational institution in the world.

National Geographic’s mission has always been to raise the level of geographical knowledge among ‘the people’, which now also means raising consciousness on ecological issues. The Web, as an interactive learning environment, a database of knowledge and a platform for discussion, fits their mission very well. So it is not surprising that National Geographic is serious about learning on the Web and learning through interactivity.

Behind the inconspicuous homepage lies a richness of single features about wildlife, polar expeditions, indigenous peoples and the like, coupled with a lot of encyclopaedic and cartographic information, additional links, forums for discussion.

These features, which form the heart of the site, are composed by different designers. Every feature is a finished piece of work and has its own distinctive visual look. At first it seems that the site, risking visual chaos, is only held together by an ugly frame with the title of the feature, a yellow and black rectangle that links to the homepage, and the recurring use of advertisements. But when you spend more time on the site you become aware of a few conventions in the use of navigation and the distribution of content across frames and pages, conventions that return in almost every feature. It is these conventions that are also responsible for the site’s feel.

Most features start with an intro before arriving at the actual content: text and images. Then the page is usually split into frames. Texts are kept short, and are distributed over several pages that are linked in a linear fashion. Every page contains general navigation for the feature as a whole, as well as navigation for the content. Another recurring trope is the use of separate windows for extra information or context. The site’s focus is obviously on interaction with content, with a didactic edge. The use of new techniques like dhtml and java is functional, aimed at transferring knowledge and involving the user in the experience of exploring a topic.

The same holds for the use of RealAudio and the daily e-mail dispatches from journalists and explorers on a National Geographic-sponsored mission (at home you can follow their adventures almost live). This, together with the forums, makes it possible both to get connected and to feel a connection with the issues and expeditions.

It’s a pity that the most well-designed features are often the ones that are the least interesting and important from an ecological and political perspective. There’s also the danger that critical issues get frozen in beautiful pictures; in other words, all the criticisms that apply to National Geographic in general apply to the website as well.

On the other hand, the geography teacher who's out of ideas for a lesson can turn to this website to find complete teaching programs, including materials, questions to ask, and web resources to make use of. There are printable maps (in easy-to-photocopy black and white) and other applications such as the Worldviewer, where you can look at the world from different perspectives (e.g. political or cultural). The children's features, already highly praised, are simple and colourful. Often a first person perspective is used in order to immerse you in the exploration of an issue and to let you find out for yourself, through trial and error, how the world is organised.

At the National Geographic website, you are an explorer of knowledge; you learn by surfing, reading encyclopaedic information or e-mail dispatches, looking at images, and playing with maps. It may well be that the Internet has made (factual) knowledge obsolete - what counts is how to use knowledge that anyone can find instantly. But really, not much can beat the good feeling of actually learning some facts, gathering insights, and getting to know your geography. And that’s just what National gives you.