Creating the design for "Explorer Academy"

Eva Absher, the vice president of visual identity at National Geographic Kids, gives you a first-hand account about overseeing a team of designers, illustrators, and photographers to create the stunning art found in the Explorer Academy book series.

The Explorer Academy motto—To discover. To innovate. To protect—never seemed more relevant to me than when I prepared to do my part as the head of design for the seven-book fiction series. It was at once a challenge and an incredible opportunity to support the amazing fictionalized world author Trudi Trueit had created.

To Discover

Characters! Campus! Classroom at sea! Where to begin?

First, we had to get a sense of what kids would want. Through testing with our Nat Geo Kids focus groups, we found that kids DID want art, but not too much, so we had to find the right balance.

Originally, we had planned for more art in Explorer Academy and bigger, more colorful spread openers. We wanted to do something dramatically different and very visual to make these books stand out in the fiction world. However, we started to realize that the more times we showed the characters, the less the kids could imagine those characters and places for themselves. Eventually we tested both versions (more art; less art) and let them choose! They all really liked seeing more art, but in their comments expressed a desire to let their imaginations do a little more of the heavy lifting. So, we scaled back on the degree of detail we showed and the number of illustrations. In the end, I actually prefer the design that is a bit more abstract and visually cleaner. Thanks, kids!

Of course, a big part of the fun was working with the author to determine what key moments in the book to illustrate. One of the cool things about the series is the codebreaking element, so certain scenes required hidden clues for kids to discover. The talent search to make it all happen led us to discover two accomplished illustrators: Scott Plumbe, who did all the interior art and Antonio Javier Caparo, who produced the cover art.

To Innovate

When I was first thinking of what the art could be for Explorer Academy, I wanted to make sure that we didn’t forget about National Geographic’s incredible history of beautiful photography and kids’ love of seeing real places and animals. So, I decided to combine photography and illustration to ground some of the imagery in our usual nonfiction world but with the fictionalized setting overlay. For example, when Cruz and Emmett are virtually charged by wildebeests in chapter six, I couldn’t help but think of the photos by Anup Shah and how amazing they are. You are caught up in the action as if you were at the feet of the next wildebeest in the stampede. We really thought kids would find this hybrid style compelling. I’m grateful to the photographers for allowing us to insert our characters into their photography.

To Protect

With Explorer Academy’s venture into fiction, it’s been fun to go outside the (yellow) box and push our creative boundaries. But the message of this series remains true to the real-world mission of our 130-year-old brand: to inspire people of all ages to explore and protect the planet and make the world a better place.