Culture, Knowledge and Typography

An Interview with Frank Rausch, designer of Viki

Viki is a typographically rich app rendition of Wikipedia. TypeThursday sat down with the designer of Viki, Frank Rausch. We discussed typography’s role in designing apps and supporting culture.


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TypeThursday: “Encyclopedias have always reflected culture and style: Das Referenz strives to build on this heritage.” You stated this with das Referenz, but I take it applies to your current app Viki as well. What did you mean by “reflected culture and style”?

Frank Rausch: We don’t think about this any more because Wikipedia’s knowledge is always readily available: Buying an encyclopedia used to be an important choice and also a pretty expensive acquisition.

When someone had a printed encyclopedia in their home or in their office, it told us something about them. Yes, it meant that they probably had enough money to buy a set of valuable books. But more importantly, possessing an encyclopedia meant that they valued knowledge — and culture — enough to spend time and money on it.

Before making such an important choice, you would probably review all the options, see different book stores and then decide on the one publisher or product that best fits your cultural context, your profession, your culture, and your style:

A British encyclopedia look different from an American one. A German encyclopedia before World War II would always be typeset in Fraktur. And you could get a single-volume encyclopedia or a 20-volume series, depending on your interest and budget.

Possessing an encyclopedia meant that they valued knowledge — and culture — enough to spend time and money on it.

Wikipedia is probably more objective — but also more sterile — than any other encyclopedia in history. Our reader apps Viki and Das Referenz have opinionated designs — they show our personal taste and typographic preferences. They don’t try to please everyone.

TT: What were some of those decisions made from a typographer’s point of view.

FR: When I started designing Viki, my biggest concern was to get the reading experience right: how the article should look, how the text should feel, what the type choice should communicate. It sounds obvious, but I’m convinced that this can’t have been the starting point for most other Wikipedia apps (or even digital reading products in general).

If you ask me, professional typography should be a top priority for all user interface designers. “Font choice” is not just another isolated feature. It’s the core of an app’s identity and also has a strong impact on legibility and usability: Text is what we interact with when we use screen-based user interfaces. Not only (but especially) when the main feature of the app is reading text!

Making the right decisions about these parameters requires knowledge, skills, and experience — it’s a typographer’s job.

Often developers leave too many decisions to the users of their digital reading products. In my opinion, the text size is the only thing that should be adjustable. The user shouldn’t have to worry about choosing a typeface, adjusting the line height, tracking, and margins. Making the right decisions about these parameters requires knowledge, skills, and experience — it’s a typographer’s job.

Attention to microtypography has become rare in the digital world. I mostly blame our typewriter-esque computer keyboards for this. Many essential characters for correct typography are hard to reach or not even available on standard keyboard layouts. Sad fact: you won’t find any correct quotation marks (“”) and apostrophes (’) in the English-language Wikipedia.

For Viki, I’ve adapted a library called SmartyPants to automatically fix these characters before an article is displayed. In fact, I’ve built in quite a few small text analysis and replacement algorithms into Viki. Most users won’t notice anything, because Viki only optimizes the presentation without altering the content. And that’s what typography is about.

There are many more typographic refinements in Viki, like hyphenation, OpenType-enabled language-specific letter variants, different figure styles for specific purposes (hanging, lining, and table figures), etc. The app ships with a custom version of the Komet typeface: Type designer Jan Fromm has made a special version for me that has a 15% narrower word space and lining table figures.

TT: These typographic considerations are important because how knowledge is conveyed in an encyclopaedia is just as important as knowledge and culture itself. Is that true to you?

Graphic design and typography are the things that make or break the user experience

FR: I would not say that these two aspects are equally important. Accurate content and good writing are probably the most important factors in an encyclopedia. If something’s wrong with the text, the most amazing typographic presentation is not going to help.

But graphic design and typography are the things that make or break the user experience; how the content is perceived and how much people enjoy reading and using the encyclopedia.

And as soon as something has a man-made shape, it’s a part of our culture. It has been influenced by the culture around it and in turn has the potential to influence that culture.


Curious about Viki? Read more about Viki.

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