Next Thursday, Wikipedia will launch a redesign that’s almost impossibly large in scope, scaling across 32,533,899 pages in 287 languages. But admittedly, it'll take a sharp eye to notice that font size is larger, or that the section headers will render in authoritative, old media serif (think Georgia) while body copy will render in streamlined sans-serif (think Helvetica).
"The changes might seem subtle—some readers of Wikipedia might not even know there's a change!" says Wikimedia's Director of User Experience Jared Zimmerman. "But for us, it starts to highlight some bigger issues."
Those bigger issue stem from a daunting problem: Wikipedia is 100% open source and free for the world to use. But there is no free and open typeface that can render in all of the world’s languages. For those of us in the Western world, it’s not much of a problem. We’re privileged, using operating systems like OS X that license fonts for us. Plus, our Latin-based scripts are represented in the vast majority of typefaces, while most written language is actually not Latin-based. Consider Chinese or Navajo.
Historically, this has created a design culture of the haves and the have nots, in which the look of Wikipedia was subject to the whims of whatever your software providers had already licensed. When rendering its pages in your browser, all Wikipedia would ask for was "sans-serif"—basically, give me anything you’ve got that’s sans-serif! As you might imagine, this has been a mess.
"There is literally no consistency of fonts on Wikipedia depending on your browser and OS combination," Zimmerman says. And that's a particular problem for an objective source of free information. "The Wikipedia editing community spends a lot of time making timeless, evergreen content, focusing on accuracy and authenticity," explains Senior Designer Vibha Bamba. "As designers, we believe that the purpose of type is to also convey the emotion of the content." Indeed, just imagine if for some, the New York Times was in Papyrus, and to others, it appeared in Comic Sans.
Wikipedia’s redesign changes the way text appears by requesting specific fonts from your computer. First it asks for a couple of open-source sets. If they're missing (and they will be for a majority of people worldwide), it will check your OS. For Apple users, the combination will always be Georgia on headers and Helvetica for body copy. For PC users, Helvetica is swapped out for Arial. (Despite being a licensed font, Helvetica gets so much love from Wikipedia specifically because it's so much better than both its licensed and free peers at rendering glyphs and characters in all those non-Latin scripts.)
A small update? In a way. (And yes, we're not discounting that Wikipedia is still sorely due for a massive navigational and media overhaul.) But in one sweeping change, Wikipedia has transformed itself from the Wild West of fonts to a poised publication that chooses certain fonts to evoke a brand standard and more universal experience. Undoubtedly, Wikipedia has made a bit of a political statement, too. "This is bigger than just a change of typography on Wikipedia," Zimmerman stresses. "It starts to point to [the question], why aren't there open-source typefaces with ubiquitous language support?"
Or put differently, why isn’t there a universal typed language that is free for everyone to use? I don’t have an answer to that. Do you?