Leaving No Language Behind

The Unicode Consortium

“Over the past five or so years, the Consortium has evolved from an industry organization solely focused on standardization and serving the industry’s needs into a 501(c)3 nonprofit with a larger mission,” said Greg Welch, Unicode Consortium board member. “Our mission today is to ensure that digitally disadvantaged languages make their way into the character sets used by computers so that as the world goes digital, those languages are not left behind.”

If members of the general public have heard of the Consortium, it’s probably to do with emoji. A number of years ago, industry members asked the Unicode Consortium to standardize the character set for emoji — something that moved the organization into the public eye. But it has a much longer history, having been incorporated in 1991. (Read more about the Unicode Consortium’s work here.)

Challenging work

The Cherokee language exemplifies the importance of the Consortium’s mission.

“The Cherokee Nation wishes to preserve its cultural heritage, but it knows that its young people are going to use modern devices,” Greg said. “If those devices don’t support the Cherokee language, then the language will fall out of use — and with it will die a lot of the Nation’s cultural heritage.”

The work isn’t simple, it’s not a “one time and done” process (living languages must be kept up to date), and it comes with many challenges. For example, the process of rendering a language in digital form can give rise to debates and controversies as to how exactly it should be represented. Further, beyond digitizing the characters, a great deal of accompanying metadata must be codified: Does the language read right to left, left to right, or vertically? How do you represent a date and currency symbols?

Adobe Design lends a hand

Adobe Design’s goals are to expand Unicode’s web and social presence, in order to widen engagement with the world at large and to create a “brand” website that tells the story of the Consortium and its mission in a consistent voice. The team is focusing on the top pages, where the general public is most likely to land.

“When you visit the website right now, it’s apparent that it is very ‘Web 1.0’,” Greg said. “It’s extremely functional and holds massive amounts of important information, but the user interface standards aren’t targeted toward today’s general public.”

“By making the site more appealing and easier to navigate, we want to help everyone understand why it’s important to preserve languages — even those that are less well known,” said Lisa Pedee, program manager for Adobe Design.

Some of the ways Adobe Design is doing this are by developing engaging content and designing for inclusivity.

“We’re helping Unicode develop a voice for its website that’s conversational, friendly, and accessible,” said Andy Welfle, content strategist for Adobe Design. “Just as our designers are putting together a brand that shows how important Unicode is to the public, we’re also helping them develop guidelines around how they talk.”

In designing for inclusivity, the team is testing color palettes for ease of use by people with color blindness and ensuring that content flow across the page works for sight-impaired users with assistive devices.

“Applying Unicode’s level of inclusivity to a branding system is one of the most intriguing parts of this work. I’m not sure if that’s truly achievable, to be honest, but we’re making a very conscious effort to infuse our design solutions with that logic,” said Suzi Slavik, designer for Adobe Design. “I’ve always had profound respect for Unicode. Its work is at the very foundation of digital communication, self-expression, creativity… so vast and yet intimately human all at once.”

“Coming from an international background, it’s especially inspiring to help bring awareness of the technology that enables communications across the globe. It’s a subject I care about and I am really glad Adobe provides and supports opportunities such as this,” stated Yaya Wang, designer for Adobe Design.

In addition to supporting the Design team, Adobe employee Nicole Minoza serves on the Consortium’s board.

“Adobe Design loves to give back and support the community. So many of our team members are excited to stretch their skills with challenging pro bono work,” Lisa said. “The engagement with Unicode is an amazing opportunity to showcase how design and creativity can help solve complex problems in an ever-changing world.”