The ossified binary of climate change discourse in the United States has been grievously fractured by reality. Out has spilled a torrent of new questions about how to exist in a society, and on a planet, in crisis. In an effort to tell the stories of our troubled climate, a number of independent magazines have set out to cover climate change not only as a scientific certainty but as a cultural and social crisis.
To make the immensity of this crisis look familiar and feel personal, publications like Emergence Magazine, Icarus Complex, and It’s Freezing in LA are embracing a more stylized visual design—one that they hope will give a new voice to climate and ecological journalism. Their goal is ambitious: to use storytelling to help readers understand that the climate crisis is not merely an event or a thing that is bound by geography or time, but an entirely new way of seeing ourselves and the Earth around us.
“It’s important for me to underline that the climate crisis is first and foremost a story about humans and humanity,” says Afsaneh Angelina Rafii, founder of Icarus Complex Magazine. As it explains in its manifesto, Icarus Complex aims not to dwell on the hopelessness of the crisis, but instead bring to the forefront people who are creating the solutions we need to mitigate its fallout. The magazine’s website serves as a web journal as well as a space for community engagement by offering a database of organizations focused on addressing alternative energy, industrial agriculture, migration, ocean acidification, species extinction, and the many other issues of the climate crisis. “The climate crisis affects every aspect of life, so we can’t look at issues in silos,” she says.
“The climate crisis is first and foremost a story about humans and humanity.”
Rafii partnered with Portugese studio Atelier d’Alves on the design of the biannual print edition, which relies on agile typography and gridding to showcase its illustrations and contemplative photography. In this way, the magazine resembles the climate and culture magazine Atmos, a publication that has built its visual presence around expressive and vibrant treatment of photography. Working with New York based Studio 191, the magazine has honed in on a style of complex yet intimate photography that takes the reader through boundless and kinetic landscapes.
Through idiomatic portraits, it’s impressed upon the reader that these geographies appear to us as reflections of the many people who occupy them. In its first four issues the magazine emphasized the parallels between the crisis of our environment and the crises of our culture. Fundamental to both Icarus Complex and Atmos is the recognition that the brutalization of our collective habitat is inextricable from social and cultural inequalities. Often, those best suited to tell that story are those who have experienced environmental injustice most directly.
Yet having a broad array of perspectives can make finding a unified visual identity challenging. “As a group we recognized that climate discussion often falls into one of two camps; the remote, technical language of science and the hotheaded outrage of activism,” say Nina Carter and Matthew Lewis, Creative Directors of It’s Freezing In LA!, a British magazine that engages with slow journalism to bring readers essays at the intersection of science and activism. Design and illustration are instrumental in helping the magazine to find a middle ground. Though It’s Freezing in L.A. frequently publishes scientific essays, aesthetically, the magazine feels contemporary, or trendy even.
“Perhaps the dissenting tone also formed naturally as we work experimentally on the publication as an organization,” say Carter and Lewis. “Thinking independently, naturally we reject certain design rules. For example, magazine covers typically present the title top aligned, however it’s not essential that they do. Our title paraphrases the climate denialism of a Donald Trump tweet, so we believed it made more sense to make the title fill the whole cover to represent its brazen ignorance.”
So much of the visual language associated with the climate change conversation ends up alienating those who it is trying to address.
Through design, each of these magazines challenge what readers may have formally understood about the look of science, nature, and our shared humanity. It is the unprecedented state of climate change that demands journalism and design work harder to communicate with a diverse audience. So much of the visual language associated with the climate change conversation ends up alienating those who it is trying to address. To depict climate change as a discussion reserved for the elite and institutional bodies, is to exclude the majority of peoples for whom it is most urgent. As rhetorician Lynda Olman notes in her 2015 review “The Visual Rhetoric of Climate Change,” the meticulously produced graphs, diagrams, renderings maps, and charts used in scientific rhetoric make the crisis feel too big to understand for the average person. The rigid and inaccessible communication styles “work at odds with goals of galvanizing personal and political action to mitigate climate change.”
One way to mitigate the intimidating density of information is to change the format altogether. Of the many magazines reflecting on the state of our crisis, Emergence Magazine, is perhaps the most comprehensive in its exploration of multimedia storytelling. A project of the Kalliopeia Foundation, an organization that has since 1997 funded projects, organizations, and educational initiatives, the publication benefits from a vast network of artists from different cultural backgrounds who explore storytelling through the lens of ecology, culture, and spirituality. Led by filmmaker Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee, the editorial process is focused on collaboration with many different artists who have their own vision. “There’s really a democracy, in terms of brainstorming ideas and where ideas can come from,” says Hannah Merriman, Art Director at Emergence Magazine.
The team works closely with the Dutch Studio Airport, who is responsible for the Windsor font wordmark that alludes to the iconic Whole Earth Catalog and the environmental movement of the 1970’s. Together they produce a formidable print edition annually, along with more frequent digital issues that endeavor to create ecological experiences via multimedia storytelling. Both in print and digital, the magazine goes to great lengths to create a tactile experience for its readers. In this way, Emergence erodes a key obstruction for many who are trying to wrap their head around climate change: how to make the planetary crisis appear in front of us in our communities, our homes, and our individual lives. Not as an elite and alienating discourse, but one that is familiar and that touches everyone. “I think the value or the ethos of craft is that when people hold something, or experience something—they can feel the care that went into it,” says Merriman. “That’s the space we want our stories to exist in. One of care, and beauty, and craft—because it elevates everything.”