What should Wikipedia look like in the modern age? It’s a question that Wikipedia is wrestling with internally, that designers are playing with via sleek concepts, and that one app developer is exploring through a very old world lens.
Das Referenz, by Raureif—the same Raureif that brought us Partly Cloudy—is an iPad app that re-skins Wikipedia into a classic, leather-bound encyclopedia. Its creators, in fact, drew inspiration from a 12-volume Meyer’s encyclopedia printed in 1895, with the hope of elevating Wikipedia’s knowledge to that of a more cherished object.
"We think knowledge is something precious, almost like a keepsake, something to be treated with a bit of respect. Old encyclopedias did just that: leather-bound, fine paper, careful editorial selection, and attention to typographic details. For us, these encyclopedias are timeless beauties," developer Timm Kekeritz tells Co.Design. "We intentionally did not go for the sleek, airy style, as this is more suitable for temporary contents, such as blog articles. For instance, we love the design of Medium.com. But while it is a great fit for blog articles, it seems a bit too light for a work of reference."
In turn, the pages are tan, like parchment paper. Images are turned to black and white (until you tap them, then they go full-screen color). These skeuomorphic touches may or may not be your cup of tea, but they’re meant to elicit the feeling of precious, heirloom information in the same way that an old book would.
Other changes—some inspired by the classic encyclopedia, and others that just reflect good taste—reimagine Wikipedia as more readable, too. For instance, the team has introduced a search page that resembles an old encyclopedia in the way it summarizes several articles in a massive list. (Wikipedia doesn’t offer this function natively.) This allows you to skim several related topics quickly.
They’ve also condensed Wikipedia’s infinitely wide text into a thin column. Images live as small thumbnails, always on the left.
"The single biggest problem of Wikipedia on the web is visual clutter," Kekeritz says. "The table of contents in the middle of the article, the scattered images, the extreme line width, etc. We tried to clean all this up."
Finally, the team gave some love to the typography itself, rendering text in eight styles of the Marat font and running an algorithm that replaces Wikipedia’s general "dumb" quotes with "smart" quotes. It’s a typography nerd quibble to be sure, but this attention to detail replaces quotes rendered as straight lines with quotes curved properly—to designate the beginning and end of a quotation.
Yet the neatest thing about Das Referenz may not be its classic take on information, but its future-forward approach to Wikipedia. Some pages are smart enough to actually integrate and render information from the information repository Wikidata—pasting images such as timelines into relevant Wikipedia articles—which even Wikipedia itself doesn’t do yet. This particular integration is fairly basic right now. It’s basically just when a few people lived and died—on a timeline. And pages that support the feature are few and far between. But given that Wikidata has all sorts of information ripe for visualization—such as geolocations, sport statistics, and box office revenues—it’s great to see developers running with the idea, even if Wikipedia itself isn’t quite yet.
Das Referenz is free and available now. You can turn the ads off for $3.