Wikipedia may have just been redesigned, but originally, its designers wanted to go further. This was a proposed design for Wikipedia, viewed on a tablet.

Note how the text doesn't just stretch end-to-end, and that the thumbnail is surrounded by white space rather than a frame.

Wikipedia's members didn't like it, though.

Nor did they like the new design on the phone, seen here.

Truth be told, even this overhaul would be viewed as subtle to some. (Here's the proposed design on a desktop.)

But the changes are, for the most part, just sound design philosophy. (Here's the old Wikipedia design.)

But the changes are, for the most part, just sound design philosophy. (Here's the old Wikipedia design.)

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The More Beautiful Wikipedia That Almost Was

Skinnier columns. Bigger images. White space. It was a brilliant vision proposed by Wikipedia’s in-house design staff, but Wikipedia's own community rejected it.

Today, Wikipedia is launching a redesign across more than 32 million pages in hundreds of languages. That’s staggering in scope, but the changes are pretty conservative, equating mostly to a new font for the section headers.

There was another Wikipedia that could have been*, parent organization Wikimedia’s designers told us last week. It was a bolder redesign, a Wikipedia optimized for a cross-platform experience on tablets, phones, and desktops. If featured thin columns, big images, and lots of white space. But "this was met with confounding failure," says Wikimedia's Director of User Experience Jared Zimmerman. "[The community thought that] we were doing too much to determine how Wikipedia was displayed."

You know Wikipedia. It fills your browser with a wall of end-to-end text that consumes everything, edging itself up against ever-tiny images that, for whatever reason, have been framed in a weak outline.


The update changed quite a bit. It removed the superfluous frames around images—adding white space instead—and it made those images bigger by default, too. And maybe more importantly, its article text was squeezed into skinnier 715-pixel-wide columns—the same approach you might see used at the New York Times for its longform stories—rather than stretching the body copy infinitely wide. (Evidence suggests that wide text makes reading comprehension more difficult).

You’d think that the design-starved Wikipedia community would have been elated for the changes. But instead? Moments of the discussion read like a pitchfork-laden pile-on. One critic rued that the columns were "ludicrously narrow," for instance. Another called an image wrapped by white space "a really bad idea...[a] hardly readable mixture of main text and captions." These criticisms feel like kneejerks, stinking with the discomfort of the new or different. To be fair, often the hive mind offered valid criticism—like this technical discussion about the effect of gray text on the eye. But other seemingly good points, like that the skinnier columns were breaking existing tables that are so popular on Wikipedia, would have been spotted by the designers on their own anyway.

Too many cooks are apt to spoil the soup, and Wikipedia is the ultimate ruled-by-committee entity. Every word typed within the network can be scrutinized or edited by anyone—literally 500 million monthly users worldwide. That check-and-balance system is the very premise on which Wikipedia can operate as a gargantuan, objective source of the world's information, and yet, as the design team shared its creative process behind a more beautiful Wikipedia, right down to some of the earliest pencil sketches, the response ultimately manifested into a mob mentality that’s keeping Wikipedia’s design in the 1990s.

"Working with the community as closely as we do has its ups and downs. It means that when we reach consensus, which is our goal, that change management is easier, but it also means that it can take longer to make changes," Zimmerman says. "Also with areas that are more subjective, you'll never please everyone and that can be a point of stress. Overall our process is always interesting and the challenges are part of what makes the foundation what it is."

But the final result shows how difficult it is to approach design with fiercely democratic ideals. It’s relatively easy for Wikipedia to train great fact checkers (facts are objective—they’re facts after all!). It's a lot harder to train a great designer. Good visual design is a mix of rules, risk, and taste. There is no one right answer that a community can agree on.

Even still, Wikipedia's designers are optimistic about the democratic process. In fact, they argue that if more of Wikipedia's 500-million-person readership shared opinions on the site's design, progressive tastes would win out.

"We usually hear from the same group of people or a 'committee' over and over again," Senior Designer Vibha Bamba writes. "If we heard from more readers, the voice in favor of change would be much stronger."

* It's worth noting that many of these unreleased design features could still find their way into a future iteration of Wikipedia, assuming a greater community consensus is reached.

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  • Judith Nicholls

    I am sick of "clean" empty modern design, usually with gray on white font or other almost unreadable fonts. Most "modern" sites are very difficult to navigate and read, especially if you are not 18 years old.

    Who are the websites for, the users or the designers. I would have thought that it would be the readers but reading this article and the comments, it appears we think that the users don't count and designers know best. How about bringing some usability experts back? That used to be important on the web.

    I will never return to flickr. I'm sure the designers think it is beautiful and I would agree if it weren't an issue of usability. I don't go there to see monster pictures on black. I go there to read comments. The groups are totally unusable now. But none of that matters to designers. zap2it's TV guide is now unusable. I'm sure somebody thinks it's beautiful but it's a TV guide and usability means being able to do what you go there for. And on and on.

  • As wiki somehow living the lie of having a proper & working logodesign, they have disqualified for being graphically legit anyways ;D There could be very much done in terms of responive design and especially readability. I barely read anything on wikipedia, I'd rather use some mobile client like Wikipanion whcih lets me adjust the typo.

  • Personally I can't read the content anymore because of the choice of the sans-serif font, Liberation Sans. In the example given of "Landscape Art" the "ape" of landscape is more or less merged together. The font is just too condensed.

  • I would like to see where we can actually chime in to this discussion on the website design for this: "If we heard from more readers, the voice in favor of change would be much stronger."

  • Well, this article misses the main point: Wikipedia is not only meant to be read, but also to be written. Wide body articles make a lot more sense by that concern: it is much more easy to check and evaluate a large piece of text without having to scroll indefinitely. And the sacrifice of the sidebar would imply the withdrawing of important community links and functions (LiveRC, user contributions, "What links here" and so forth). Besides Wikipedia remains an ergnomic platform. By contrast fastcodesign, with all its esthetic features is quite a pain to dowload (took me 20 seconds to open the article with a brand new mac).

  • Jerry Ketel

    Page design should not be crowd sourced to a community. Unless that community has as much experience as Edward Tufte. I wonder what the iPhone would look like if this community had its way. Judging from the above, we already know.

  • Luciano Elias

    People love to complain about design. Facebook is the biggest target nowadays, and now we read this about Wikipedia.

    Yet, when left to their own devices, people end up creating the monstrosity that was MySpace.

    Seriously, do we need a better example of why website design shouldn't be decided by amateurs?