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).
This retooling is the tip of a very large iceberg:
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.
Whether you agree with the phrases “privileged” and “have and have nots”, the underlying problem is real and goes well beyond Wikipedia, to the core of the web and all manner of global publishing.