A Picture Is Worth A Million Shares

July 10, 2018

You don’t have to be a National Geographic subscriber, or even follow the magazine on Instagram, to marvel at its latest cover brilliance. Its plastic-bag-turned-iceberg June cover illustration by Mexican artist Jorge Gamboa made its way into countless feeds and platforms, making it one of 2018’s most powerful images.


It’s all part of the magazine’s “Planet or Plastic?” effort to raise awareness about the world’s plastic pollution problem. It coincides with the publisher’s decision to eliminate plastic-wrapped magazine delivery to its subscriber base. Beyond the noble aim of sparking worldwide discussion, this metaphoric masterpiece reinforces some important lessons about visual communication.

Stills Still Work
It would be tempting to say “let’s turn this into a GIF on Instagram!” and gild the lily. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Not everything needs motion. And this is coming from a guy who likes his Boomerangs and cinemagraphs.

Execution Is Everything
Done hastily this could have been nothing but a cheesy tip-of-the-iceberg cliché. But from the subtle rays of sunshine to formation of the bag, no detail was overlooked. Gamboa nailed famed designer Paul Rand’s words: “Defamiliarize the ordinary.”

Exercise Some Restraint
If you’ve got a great visual, let it do the heavy lifting for you. Unlike its magazine-aisle counterparts, National Geographic doesn’t drown beautiful pixels with screaming type. June’s cover is no exception.

Copy As A Complement
Three simple words “Planet or Plastic?” along with smallish inset copy thoughtfully graces the image. Pithy. Purposeful. Bonus points for carrying the theme into an actionable hashtag: #PlanetOrPlastic.

See, Print’s Not Dead
Print, written off by many, has evolved. It’s learned how to play nicely with digital. Although the medium has been diminished, the power of it can still be escalated. What starts in this case as a magazine cover can go, excuse the word, viral.

Show Don’t Tell Me
In the make-it-snackable world of content, one could simply look at this cover, never read the article, and still understand the challenge facing the oceans.

Parting note: This isn’t the first time we’ve been mesmerized by plastic bags. Who can forget that moving scene from American Beauty? Or Ogilvy’s work for the Environmental Defense Fund?