The Wikimedia Foundation is trying to do something ambitious: The famously designed-by-committee nonprofit is planning a full rebrand, complete with a design firm’s assistance. The approach highlights the value of a third-party viewpoint.
This past week, the famed digital encyclopedia Wikipedia, which just celebrated its 19th birthday, reached an impressive, if inevitable, tally: 6 million articles in the English-language version of the platform.
Simply put, it’s a juggernaut, and one that the Wikimedia Foundation has done a great job of managing from both a financial standpoint and a technical one. It has taken the lead on important advocacy issues in the digital nonprofit space. It is an organization that serves a lot of minders and a massive public that consumes a lot of information.
Too bad not many people know what the Wikimedia Foundation is, unlike its most famous product. People are confused about the foundation’s branding—a side effect of an organization built around user-generated content. I’m not just saying this, either: A year ago, the foundation researched this issue and found the results less than inspiring.
“The results showed high support for Wikimedia’s mission and strong interest in contributing to Wikimedia projects,” the foundation’s brand director, Zack McCune, wrote. “There was only one problem: Almost no one surveyed understood what Wikimedia actually means.”
Bringing in an Agency
Perhaps it’s for this reason that the foundation hired the design and architecture firm Snøhetta to help it redesign its brand, a plan they announced recently through a website they call Wikipedia Tomorrow.
This is a big step for the foundation, which is famous for struggling with its brand and basic design scheme, a classic case of there being too many fingers in the pot. A great example is a subtle page redesign a few years ago that most people didn’t notice but a few people were angry about.
Now the foundation is working to do a brand reset, a part of its 2030 strategic goals, with Snøhetta’s help.
Fortunately, the foundation has plenty of research to look into. A couple of years ago, Wikimedia reached out to its audience and did a lot of homework trying to figure out how people use the many arms of its service. They followed that up with brand research [PDF] that led to the conclusion that it would be a good idea to center the branding on Wikipedia.
The Wikipedia rebranding website notes something important on its brand story page: Often, barriers limit who can take part in the sharing of knowledge—something Wikipedia itself has struggled with, particularly in its efforts to get more articles about women on the platform.
“We are working to ensure that everyone can participate in the creation of knowledge so anyone can understand anything,” the site states.
The Wikimedia Foundation and Snøhetta are leaning into community feedback as a part of the redesign effort, which the design firm is labeling as “a cutting-edge exploration of collaboration in design.” The organization launched a Facebook group to help center the effort, and the foundation of course has a wiki to organize the discussion (complete with a few critical comments—this is Wikipedia, after all).
To me, that’s the most interesting part of the project—an effort to balance messy collaboration with a traditional agency-focused brand redesign.
I’m curious whether at some point the foundation is going to have to diverge from the user input to ensure that the final result is more impactful. After all, it’s not designing for just the loudest voices but the silent majority, the audience of billions that relies on the nonprofit and its many tools. If the design fails along the lines of the infamous Digg redesign launched a decade ago, a lot of people will suddenly lose access to a world of information. The stakes are high.
Associations with their large member bases might be facing similar problems trying to please everyone. The best you can do is listen. But sometimes, the feedback will have to be pushed aside in favor of larger strategic interests.
After all, too much feedback can be paralyzing.