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Designing for Foreign Cultures

Factors to Consider When Creating Materials for Multicultural Audiences


Designing for Foreign Cultures

"Designing Across Cultures" by Ronnie Lipton

When designing for other cultures, how do you know which colors to use that will resonate with a specific group? The wrong visual message can ruin the best global design strategies. Below I outline five factors to consider when designing for a multicultural (foreign) audience.

1. If you like it and everyone else does in your company, research and tweak it a bit and then go with it. For example, you can design a website for an overseas client located in Japan and during your research find that pastel tones, which evoke harmony and softness, are everywhere --from retail display windows to print ads. Yet, the client may have selected you to design his website because of your style (a blend of bright reds, blues, greens and pinks) to achieve a more vibrant American look for his company. Just be careful with your finished product. Does it conjure up the right emotion when Japanese people view it?

2. Color combinations and arrangements in other countries don’t really matter unless they offend. The key to not offending people in another culture is to thoroughly research the market and learn to understand the people. A little secret: By juxtaposing the same color combinations in different arrangements, consumers can see what might appear to be different combinations but are in fact just different arrangements of the same combinations. Certain color combinations can suggest a consistency in meaning that can transcend across boundaries.

3. Individual color choices matter country to country. Whereas combining and arranging colors may not matter as much so long as you don’t offend, selecting a single color does matter from country to country, especially depending upon how the color is used. For example:

• In China, white would not be an appropriate color for a wedding. It is the color of mourning. If a bride chooses a white wedding gown, her parents would probably not allow her to get married.

• In India, even in Christian weddings, while most brides wear white it is usually relieved by at least a touch of some other color. If a married woman wears unrelieved white in India, she is inviting widowhood and unhappiness.

• In Italy, purple means death.

• In China, green is the color symbolic for wood.

• In Egypt, taxis have orange license plates.

• In Israel, yellow generates negativity.

Source: “Color & Culture Matters

4. Mixing old and new colors. Do you want a traditional or hip look? Mixing is OK. However, the trick is to envision how your final piece will look for an overseas client. Will they like it? Will it resonate with their audience? If yes on both counts, you’ve got a design winner in the global marketplace!

5. Be careful with images--not just the colors--because not all images are received the same in different countries. People from different countries can experience different sensations in response to the same design. For example:

• Upright chopsticks in a rice bowl mean death in certain countries.

• A biker image in a Latino marketplace should be avoided, yet in the USA it is perfectly fine.

• Images of three people in the international marketplace can be offensive to a huge population.

• An ad with a solid black background will send the Asian marketplace running.

Source: “Designing Across Cultures” (as shown in photo)

When designing for overseas clients, never lose sight of the fact that the goal of creating a marketing brochure, product or website is to connect with a specific market and end user. If one fails to achieve that, the best design thus translates into a futile effort.

A few books, a website and a survey worth mentioning about designing across cultures and using cross-border color combinations:

The Designer’s Guide to Global Color Combinations

Designing Across Cultures” (as shown in photo)

Managing Images in Different Cultures: A Cross-National Study of Color Meanings and Preferences

Translations That Are Marketing Mistakes (some reference color):

Global Color Survey

Image taken by Laurel Delaney

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