Designers and Creative Commons: Learning Through Wikipedia Redesigns

tl;dr: Wikipedia redesigns mostly ignore attribution of Wikipedia authors, and none approach the problem creatively. This probably says as much or more about Creative Commons as it does about the designers.

disclaimer-y thing: so far, this is for fun, not work; haven’t discussed it at the office and have no particular plans to. Yes, I have a weird idea of fun.

Refresh variant from interfacesketch.com.
A mild refresh from interfacesketch.com.

It is no longer surprising when a new day brings a new redesign of Wikipedia. After seeing one this weekend with no licensing information, I started going back through seventeen of them (most of the ones listed on-wiki) to see how (if at all) they dealt with licensing, attribution, and history. Here’s a summary of what I found.

Completely missing

Perhaps not surprisingly, many designers completely remove attribution (i.e., history) and licensing information in their designs. Seven of the seventeen redesigns I surveyed were in this camp. Some of them were in response to a particular, non-licensing-related challenge, so it may not be fair to lump them into this camp, but good designers still deal with real design constraints, and licensing is one of them.

History survives – sometimes

The history link is important, because it is how we honor the people who wrote the article, and comply with our attribution obligations. Five of the seventeen redesigns lacked any licensing information, but at least kept a history link.

Several of this group included some legal information, such as links to the privacy policy, or in one case, to the Wikimedia Foundation trademark page. This suggests that our current licensing information may be presented in a worse way than some of our other legal information, since it seems to be getting cut out even by designers who are tolerant of some of our other legalese?

Same old, same old

Four of the seventeen designs keep the same old legalese, though one fails to comply by making it impossible to get to the attribution (history) page. Nothing wrong with keeping the existing language, but it could reflect a sad conclusion that licensing information isn’t worth the attention of designers; or (more generously) that they don’t understand the meaning/utility of the language, so it just gets cargo-culted around. (Credit to Hamza Erdoglu , who was the only mockup designer who specifically went out of his way to show the page footer in one of his mockups.)

A winner, sort of!

Of the seventeen sites I looked at, exactly one did something different: Wikiwand. It is pretty minimal, but it is something. The one thing: as part of the redesign, it adds a big header/splash image to the page, and then adds a new credit specifically for the author of the header/splash image down at the bottom of the page with the standard licensing information. Arguably it isn’t that creative, just complying with their obligations from adding a new image, but it’s at least a sign that not everyone is asleep at the wheel.

Observations

This is surely not a large or representative sample, so all my observations from this exercise should be taken with a grain of salt. (They’re also speculative since I haven’t talked to the designers.) That said, some thoughts besides the ones above:

  • Virtually all of the designers who wrote about why they did the redesign mentioned our public-edit-nature as one of their motivators. Given that, I expected history to be more frequently/consistently addressed. Not clear whether this should be chalked up to designers not caring about attribution, or the attribution role of history being very unclear to anyone who isn’t an expect. I suspect the latter.
  • It was evident that some of these designers had spent a great deal of time thinking about the site, and yet were unaware of licensing/attribution. This suggests that people who spend less time with the site (i.e., 99.9% of readers) are going to be even more ignorant.
  • None of the designers felt attribution and licensing was even important enough to experiment on or mention in their writeups. As I said above, this is understandable but sort of sad, and I wonder how to change it.

Postscript, added next morning:

I think it’s important to stress that I didn’t link to the individual sites here, because I don’t want to call out particular designers or focus on their failures/oversights. The important (and as I said, sad) thing to me is that designers are, historically, a culture concerned with licensing and attribution. If we can’t interest them in applying their design talents to our problem, in the context of the world’s most famously collaborative project, we (lawyers and other Commoners) need to look hard at what we’re doing, and how we can educate and engage designers to be on our side.

I should also add that the WMF design team has been a real pleasure to work with on this problem, and I look forward to doing more of it. Some stuff still hasn’t made it off the drawing board, but they’re engaged and interested in this challenge. Here is one example.