Wikimedia Blog/Drafts/The Puzzle Globe: A History

The Puzzle Globe: A HistoryEdit


A partial globe hangs in the Wikimedia office in San Francisco. Photo by Dmgultekin, CC BY-SA 3.0.

It's almost as old as the website itself, and by now is practically synonymous. Wikipedia's logo—or the puzzle globe—has been a mainstay of the website for over ten years.

Upon Wikipedia's emergence as the immediate successor to Nupedia in 2001, co-founder Larry Sanger asked for suggestions for "something that fits the spirit of the project, includes one or more of the words ["Wikipedia" and "the free encyclopedia"], and fits in the upper right hand corner of the web page". Within only a couple of months, twenty-four suggestions were presented to the community for discussion.

And thus, Wikipedia's logo for almost two years was a Hobbes quote, cut directly from Leviathan, and shaped roughly into a sphere.

Stansifer's logo won an international contest to design the new Wikipedia logo in 2003.

This simple-yet-quirky concept lasted until 2003. A competition—known simply as the "international logo contest"—was proposed by Erik Moeller, who is now the Deputy Director of the Wikimedia Foundation. He argued the Hobbes logo was biased towards the English language, ugly, and put across a point of view, the opposite of what Wikipedia was trying to become.

Paul Stansifer was barely an adult when he submitted his proposal for the new logo. It is perhaps no surprise that the exact inspiration for his design eludes him—but he was definitely in the kitchen when it struck.

"I think I remember where I was, which way I was facing," he says. "I don't really remember exactly what form the idea took. I basically immediately settled on the idea of puzzle pieces, sphere and incompleteness, but I don't remember like at what point I decided that it needed to be incomplete, which is of course crucial to the symbolism."

He pins his initial thoughts to a globe lamp sat in the room with him. "So I hope that I thought of it early, because otherwise, what was I thinking?"

Over the late summer and early autumn of 2003, the Wikipedia community—at the time a small but vocal group of users—proposed a total of 150 logos for consideration. Some were colourful, some were symbolic, but in the end the people had their say.

One of those logos was a creation by Stansifer. A globe crafted from puzzle pieces of various colours, with words of various languages woven through. Some were blue and underlined, which at the time was synonymous with an internal link on the website.

Paul Stansifer was a teenager when his concept won a competition to design the new logo.

"Everyone looked at entries that they liked, and they commented, and they gave suggestions, and I fiddled around with them just to try out the various ideas," Stansifer recalls. "It was really cool because I was interacting with other people on the Internet, and none of them had any idea that I was just this kid. And it didn't matter. It was all about the process of creating a logo."

Stansifer's puzzle globe, modelled in open-source 3D graphics program POV-Ray, emerged victorious, edging out what would eventually become the Wikimedia Foundation and Mediawiki logos respectively. "It was ridiculous because I'm not an artist at all. I'm a seventeen-year-old who just graduated high school, and is sitting on his parent's couch just tapping away on his laptop because, hey, this is something interesting to do," he says.

"There was a one hundred euro reward as an award for the contest," he adds. "The funny thing about that was after I'd won the contest, and the person [Moeller] contacted me to send it by PayPal, this was the first time that I ever had to admit that I was actually a minor, and so therefore couldn't have a PayPal account. That was the only point in the entire process that I ever had to admit that I was just this kid."

Eventually the logo made its way to every Wikipedia in existence at that time, though not everyone was so enamoured with his work.

"It was kind of ugly," remarks David Friedland, a member of the Wikipedia community for around three months at the time of the vote. "After that won there was some outcry. I was among those who complained, because it was pretty ugly and I didn't really think that the logo that had won the contest, that image, would make for a good public space for the project."

"At the time the project was still pretty small, so I felt personally invested because of some of the other work I'd done with Wikipedia on how the project would be viewed by the public."

Stansifer explains that the logo was the subject of a major discussion as to its appropriateness and technical quality. "The colorful version was on for I think a few weeks. And it had some serious problems. It was really busy and instead of what we now think of with a single character on each piece, it had running text that was just like the mixture of various languages. Some of them were underlined in blue to symbolize wiki links because I was still being really literalistic about it."

Wikipedia's logo used from 2003 until 2010

Numerous Wikipedians presented updates to Sandifer's winning concept to improve its display and to clean it up. Friedland's idea—to strip away the colour and focus on glyphs, rather than words—proved popular.

"In some ways I think that the lack of colour is like nicely symbolic of a neutral point of view," Stansifer says. "It's something that at least aspires to be a consistent overall whole—it doesn't hew one way or another."

Friedland elected to take the initial letter of the word "Wikipedia"—the "W"—and use its equivalent in fifteen different languages to decorate his globe. "Obviously a lot of the concept is Paul's, the idea of the pieces and incompleteness," he explains, "but then, each piece could represent either a language or a culture or a country by way of having the written character on it."

"Although I do wish that I had come up with a more strong story for each character, in a way a lot of it was kind of something that in my mind looked neat. Which ten years hence doesn't really come off as a very deep or symbolic way of choosing the symbols."

The focus on single characters was a marked change from both the solid-text logo of the early years and from Stansifer's POV-Ray creation. Friedland saw his version of the logo as a minimal, but effective, way to put across the multiculturalism of Wikipedia.

"One of my majors was in linguistics," Friedland says. "I kind of always had an interest in languages and writing systems and so I was familiar with a number of different writing systems used in different languages around the world."

"I felt that using a variety of writing systems would embody the Wikipedia concept of multiculturalism and multilingualism. By putting one character from many different systems onto the globe it would convey that concept right away of internationalism. The fact that each piece of the puzzle maybe comes from a different culture or a different language, or a different country, but they all combine together."

Joe Sutherland, Communications Fellow, Wikimedia Foundation

Interview by Victor Grigas, Storyteller and Video Content Producer, Wikimedia Foundation

Notes / SocialEdit

Notes: See discussion page.