Part UNO: United Nations / Nations Unies?

Part One: “Welcome to the UN. It’s your world.”


Above: UN entry page adorned with the organization’s six languages.

Geotypografika Kommentario: What follows is a humble analysis of the two main entry areas to the United Nations web portal, un (dot) org. To the point, and speaking as objectively as possible, it seems fair to say that more attention was given to creating the “dimensional” laurel wreath than in creating a truly inviting and contemporary entry. Are trained designers making these decisions, or is this an example of something lost in administrative streamlining? Worse yet, the absence of designers,
or simply interested, thinking, feeling human beings?

Bienvenido to the UN, a window to the world?
Bienvenue, welcome. Simple words that carry great meaning, and appropriately chosen. The United Nations’ entry page defines the organization’s six languages both visually and literally in this simple moment. Clearly, it works, but this lonely page also betrays great and difficult issues that should stimulate new approaches.

This page is a perfect example of how a mind-set of pushing languages, and therefore cultures, into the same or standardized visual system, means sacrificing the opportunity for true harmony within visual diversity. Romanization (or HTMLization ) is not just limited to translation in printed or written language forms, but is also a force in it’s representative structuring. Case in point? The above page. Another? Take Atatürk’s wholesale conversion of the Turkish written language from Arabic to a 29 character Roman alphabet in 1928 (see old post here).

Apropo conversions from Arabic, look to the evolution of Arabic calligraphy to Arabic typography as it encountered the western limitation of character based movable type systems (imposing isolated characters, streamlined character sizes, baseline structures and more).

Let go, and let type.
It must be said simply, and with all due respect for the apparent enormity of this problem, this first entry page above is sadly inadequate, and does not express the potential for the present and future that such an organization must. It’s imagery is flat and hard to decipher, in some ways, remarkably remote and does not feel human.

Practical people might say it functions just fine, and all would agree that is what is most important. But the issues at hand, however simple they might appear, are so compelling I can’t imagine any thinking visual person in this world that wouldn’t want to have a shot at improving these two windows (and as a consequence, the entire system). This is a problem worth exploring.


Above: The main index page for the English language area. A true bevy of issues here, led on by an interesting mirroring of American political precepts, appearing here as “We the Peoples.” Also notice that in clicking through one link, we have already been introduced to two variations of the UN identity, here in its most essential and, ironically, weak form.

Subscript: On the welcome page and if you visit the English page itself, you will notice the phrase, “Welcome to the UN. It’s your world.”, in the page title tab on your browser. Interestingly, the same does not appear to be true in the other languages.

A contemporary yet melancholy catchiness, and a concession to the perceived need for that, sadly?


Above: UN identity detail. Given the possibilities of this medium, and the combined visual expression of history, surely more is possible here. For example, if dimension was attractive as a solution, why not a real laurel wreath?


Above: UN main identity detail. Stroke weight reduction would help to allow this mark to retain references to longitude and latitude, and not, as in this case, to the cross hairs of a targeting system, read: gun. In plain view as well: the long awaited return of the dreaded drop shadow. (I, like you perhaps, am also trying hard to ignore
the green rules.)


Above: The Chinese language main index page. With this and the next examples,
one can clearly see the typographic problems commonly associated with multi-lingual communication platforms: balancing the needs of individual language forms with the apparent working limitations of this solution, see above. The solution restricts itself to a view of what are essentially still Gutenberg age issues, the setting of “static” blocks of type (!). HTML does have some limitations, but we will all agree, these should not be problems for us anymore.

What’s the problem?
Since all six pages need to share common content, and character size and width vary drastically in the various language forms, the word shape and line length of the shared topics also change significantly. A solution to these problems should not limit itself to creating harmony through shared apparition or structure, nor a larger attempt at a visual symmetry. This is the 21st Century, Freunde! This is not a letterpress.

Let’s imagine something new and old, all at the same time.

Let us also not forget the added issue of native reading orientations. For example,
the Chinese characters above are estranged from their natural state of vertical alignment. That is not to say that these characters are not adaptable enough for this variation (clearly ancient and contemporary graphic and typographic design in
China prove this). But, let’s hope that reflecting diversity does not only mean shared baseline orientations.

Limitations in what is possible between balancing essentially only four “different” typographic systems (French and Spanish are not significantly different from the English as Roman forms), should not simply define or restrict problems such as these, rather, they should be seen as an opportunity for new invention. What we see here is a concession to the very base needs of HTML and western typographic “tradition,”
not the problems or the needs of language, and, therefore, the problems and needs of the peoples of the world.

(Admittedly, there is also the complexity of updating and editing this data across all platforms – still, I maintain the options are a matter of linking information,
not creating static
link platforms. Function can determine form, but form can also
determine function.)


The Cyrillic, as set above, seemingly defies commonly held proscriptions for achieving maximum legibility through good contrast in individual characters and therefore word shape. The type size and stroke weight seem to fight the counter forms and negative spaces needed to maximize legibility. (Carefully compare type sizes in all
of these examples.)

Again, limitations should not restrict solutions, but that does seem to be the case here. The limitation of using Cyrillic has been addressed only by type size, and in no other way. This is not enough.


Above: The Arabic main index page. Sadly, Arabic suffers most here, reduced, quite literally, to barley perceptible linear variations more akin to western typographic proscriptions than the fluid potential inherent to the written language. (Need evidence? See the work of the contemporary Iranian designers, ironically designing for Farsi (!), yet these designers are the true carriers of the beauty of ancient and contemporary Arabic.) A common problem to all communication media platforms worldwide, more work is needed to provide more Arabic typefaces in general, as well as new ideas of how to preserve it’s natural flexibility and formlessness.

Again, as with the Cyrillic page, the only decision made here to cope with the longer line lengths was to reduce type size. As we know, character height varies amongst typefaces, as well as languages. Is this the correct typeface? Are any of these the right typefaces? If line length needs to be longer in order toaccomodate legibility, so be it. Increase the type size, and let Arabic be Arabic, not just another form forced into an English baseline.

Of course, there are an infinity of possible solutions but one precept should be easily accommodated by all of us at this point: Embrace the potential diversity of form as well as it’s function. As I have said here before, let go, and let type.

If maximum legibility is the goal here, at the very least, each language system should be respected for it is and what it does, and the space it requires. A common typographic solution to this problem would allow for the longest line length to set the limits, not a single language or character system. Then, you can go endlessly from there, non?

Even the most basic typographic approach common to each system would work better than what we see here and, not by coincidence, achieve a more natural representation of the language and their cultures. But there are more conclusions and directions we can draw from these observations.

Continue > Part DOS: Four Writing Systems and a Microphone

One Response to “Part UNO: United Nations / Nations Unies?”

My initial reaction to this site was,”Why didn’t they hire a designer native to each language and assign them to the corresponding section?” After all, someone who speaks Chinese is probably going to go to the Chinese section. Someone who speaks English probably isn’t going to see the Arabic section. Now I understand there may be some issues with needing some kind of continuity for either the curious or bilingual. Keeping that in mind, a true designer would be open to discussion with his contemporaries from other countries. I’m sure they could put their minds together and come up with a solution that didn’t decimate each language but kept some sort of coherence. Hell, Wikipedia’s front page solved the problem better than the designer for the *United Nations* did. Surely there is something wrong with that picture…

Mitchell Lewis added these words on Feb 20 08 at 8:51 PM

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