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Everyone loves Vikings, letters to National Geographic

Updated: Apr 22, 2021

I completed an internship at National Geographic Magazine’s art department where I had the pleasure of illustrating two letters pages. This was the first illustration I did for the magazine so it was a major learning experience, and one I thought I’d share with you. The letters page illustration is quite unique since it is inspired not by a specific descriptive need but by readers’ reactions to stories in a previous issue. It also features quotes pulled directly from the letters and integrated into the art. In this case the artist has a lot of freedom, and creating a somewhat conceptual graphic is even encouraged. I was given a stack of emails sent to the magazine in response to the November issue and asked to read through them to find which stories inspired reader comments and come up with an illustration that would reflect the story and/or the reactions to it. The readers definitely went for the unexpected this time.

The November 2012 National Geographic featured major stories about Cuba, Cheetahs and Penguins as well as an interesting, but less extensive story called Vikings and Native Americans. Cuba understandably got many responses however it was decided that this story was not visual enough and therefore a graphic about Cuba wouldn’t really benefit the page. Everyone at the art department expected that Cheetahs would get the most letters because it was visually innovative and absolutely spectacular, but the story about the Vikings in North America garnered far more attention than anyone expected. I wasn’t aware of this but apparently people are really into Vikings! Not only was the fascination with Vikings evident, but most of the letters referencing the article were of a specific vein. These letters demonstrate clearly the amazing power of suggestion.

The original article, by Heather Pringle, describes exciting evidence found for trade relationships between the local arctic hunters (the Dorset people) and the Vikings. In the piece the author briefly states that the Dorset people vanished without a trace in the 14th century. This was not the focus of the article at all, it was simply a declaration of facts, mentioned in passing. However, this statement in combination with the described interaction with Vikings lead many readers to make a connection and suggest that perhaps the relationship with the Vikings was directly or indirectly responsible for the Dorset’s disappearance. The different hypotheses for how this happened varied, although a particularly popular theory was that diseases brought from Europe to the New World were responsible for the mysterious disappearance.

When I first read the article I admit this also crossed my mind. Grade school taught us all about Spanish sailors as vectors for diseases in the New World and the geographic aspect of the immune system. Upon further reflection on the readers responses it was evident that people are natural detectives. We are compelled to investigate and explain the world around us. It’s amazing how easy it is to create a seemingly original idea in someone’s mind without explicitly expressing that thought. I don’t know if Pringle intended this or not, but when we have no other variables to consider, the simple fact that A preceded B leads us to believe that A caused B somehow. (I could go on a rant now about statistics and how easy it is to assume causality but I will refrain. I have already digressed from the original point of this post…) I thought I would give you some insight into how the graphic evolved. One of the first ideas used traditional headgear to represent the two peoples. The Dorset would be represented by a beautiful ancient American mask that appears in a photo from the story. A traditional horned helmet would symbolize the Vikings and the two would be talking with each other quoting reader comments. As a science illustrator I am aware of the importance accuracy, and at National Geographic even an artistic, subjective illustration of readers (not necessarily fact based) reactions must be fact checked- this is serious stuff! So I did some research and discovered that we had a problem. Apparently, there is no historical proof that Vikings even wore horned helmets! I know, I feel betrayed too. And you thought the vikings had style. I am aware you are going to google this so here, I did it for you.

In any case, when I replaced the most recognizable headdress on earth with the historically accurate (ahem BORING) helmet, the sketch definitely lost some of its pizzazz. It just looked like any old knight’s helmet and that wasn’t going to fly. So instead I turned to the second most popular viking symbol, the longship. I based my illustration on real Viking ships in existence and historical reconstructions. I did my research and was quite pleased with the result. The page was starting to take shape and I showed a near finished draft for comments and corrections. I was instructed to contact an expert on Viking ships to check my illustration (fortunately they had one handy since he consulted for the original story). Guys seriously, you get what you pay for- the standard of work at the magazine is just outstanding. Your minor vector graphics are fact checked by Viking experts of this museum in Denmark. You’re welcome. I called and had an intriguing and very helpful conversation with the consultant. I showed him two different versions of the ship (3 and 4) and he clarified which ornamentation was appropriate to the specific historical period when the Vikings had the seafaring technology to cross the Atlantic (4 was correct as 3 was from an earlier, smaller ship). He also had me tweak a few of the proportions on the ship but overall I felt I had done really well and my illustration was sufficiently accurate.

Both versions I showed the expert had the ship’s rowing oars out. In fact the biggest change he had me make was to remove the oars. “Why?” I asked. “Are they not historically accurate?” “Well”, he said, “you have them on a high sea- those waves are big. They’re not nearing shore… there’s enough wind that they wouldn’t need to row.” Stop for a second and consider the illustration and its text.

Now tell me: am I the only one who finds this funny? I may have actually giggled before we hung up. He was absolutely right and I made the change. In fact it even made for a cleaner, better visual. In my quest for accuracy I had overlooked the story being told in my illustration and the last thing I expected from the Viking expert was a correction of this sort. But I just couldn’t get over how seriously, and how LITERALLY everyone was taking this tiny little silhouette illustration that wasn’t even describing any actual thing but was just an expression of readers thoughts. The text waves are too big to use oars for rowing! After seeing the ipad edition’s animated version of the graphic I understand more why it’s fussed over. Not only is it larger on the ipad, but its now clear to me that the letters page graphics are a very obvious reflection of the voice of the magazine itself. The details matter. The original article was fascinating, and I thoroughly enjoyed my conversation with the Viking expert who was so helpful and friendly. I learned so much from working with the wonderful staff at the magazine and I am so grateful for the opportunity to fulfill my dream if only for a couple of months. But really, go out and buy the March issue (or better yet the ipad edition), flip to the letters page and appreciate how much thought and effort goes into creating even the smallest details of the masterpiece magazine. To read the original article click here, you won’t be sorry! I highly recommend you pick up the magazine, or better yet the ipad (or tablet) edition! It features amazing stories about Bonobos, drones and fracking!

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