Co.Design

Wikipedia To Redesign Across More Than 32 Million Pages

The design is subtle but prompts a political question: "Why isn’t there a universal typed language that is free for everyone to use?"

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.”

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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.)

When asking your browser for body copy, Wikipedia requests open the source fonts Arimo and Liberation Sans, then settles for Helvetica Neue, Helvetica, Arial, and a generic sans-serif, respectively.

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?

[Images: Courtesy of Wikipedia]

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38 Comments

  • Rod Downburst Johnson

    Navajo has a Latin-based writing system. Also, Mandarin is a language by any linguist's standard. The use of "dialect" in Chinese is not the standard one and mainly reflects the fact that the various Chinese languages use the same writing system.

  • Jesse Samuel Hall

    "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)."

    lol. No. I don't have a "trained eye" or anything and I noticed the change the first time I used wikipedia today after the update... It reminds me of Google search's change in font too. Lately I use Stylish so most websites don't cause me EYE CANCER just looking at them. Why does EVERYTHING have to have white backgrounds and black text? It's the 21st century for god's sake.

  • The new serifed headlines look like shit. Why not just used Arial or Helvetica for the entire thing? Is this some sort of April Fools thing?

  • I know Wikipedia is supposed to be ugly, but I still like it a hundred times better than, say, your blog. I kind of prefer the appearance of a 3rd grader designing it to something that cries "a designer designed me" all the time at the innocent user. I really hope the improvements in Wikipedia are really improvements (nothing Wikimedia changed in the last couple of years has been, I think).

  • Samuel Ford

    Georgia? Will we never be rid of Microsoft "web fonts" designed for 90s era crappy screens?

  • Samuel, Its true that Georgia was optimized on Windows as a web font in the 90's, but calling it crappy may be a bit of an oversight. Georgia addresses the challenges of on-screen display with open forms at all sizes. It combines legibility with character. Some of the most trusted serif typefaces such as Bodoni, Sabon, Baskerville, Mrs Eaves are unreadable at small sizes and suffer from problems of hinting. While these are beautiful and extensively used for communication design, they have many very apparent issues on screens. Georgia is very functional in this respect.

  • Hamish McIntyre

    Wikipedia operates as a Not for Profit organisation, but it's not devoid of income from charitable donations and fund raising. Couldn't it just earmark some of this towards the commissioning of a universal typeface?

  • Hamish, while that's a very rational idea (and one that I share with you) it requires time, apart from funding. We wouldn't just be able to throw this problem to someone, it needs continued participation from our side. Someone from Wikipedia needs to drive this effort, and every single product manager, designer, developer is swamped with Editor Retention projects.

    Our needs around glyphs, kerning pairs, hinting & non latin scripts require extensive investigation, testing and community discussion, much more than goes into regular font and typeface development.

    That said, these are hurdles must be overcome and perhaps this will happen over time. If we were able to deliver a beautiful robust open source font, it would be a fantastic testimony to typography & the open source web.

  • Hi Erik,

    Wikimedia's code is open source and volunteers contribute, so you can actually see that the first patch (minus bug fixing and followups) to our styles. If you look at the patch (https://gerrit.wikimedia.org/r/#/c/120978/) you can see it added/removed a lot more than two lines.

    Of course, even if was just two lines, most of the actual work is the time to iterate on your idea, and on trying things you probably throw out or alter. As an interaction designer I'm sure you've been frustrated by people not understanding design process, and how the simplicity of an end result (if good) does not always reflect the blood, sweat, and tears you put in to it.

  • If they have 1,000's of inline font references then yes they have a lot of work to do... but as mentioned above by Erik this should be handled with 2 lines of CSS... (and if required... the deletion of 1,000's of inline font declarations). CSS font stacks were designed specifically to handle this problem.

  • Jared, Vibha, Steven: Great to see this thoughtful typographic enhancement to the best thing on the Internet. Wikipedia is somehow more “encyclopedic” when it mixes serif heds with sans body text—which is how it should be. Looking forward to seeing more updates to Wikipedia as you strive to make it a better, coherent experience.

  • Chad Kaufman

    They should have considered Ubuntu font family, and even contributing to the its character set. http://font.ubuntu.com/ They have a great number of characters across 200+ languages and free license.