Cross Cultural Design

Cross Cultural Design

Culture provides a framework for everything that we do.  It is the lens from which we understand and interpret the world around us.  Culture sets the tone for how we interact with others, make decisions and it subconsciously dictates what we know to be right and wrong.  Our culture is our normal. Yet there is not just one form of normal. In fact, there are hundreds that span the globe! When we step outside the framework of our culture we are typically quite shocked, and some can feel like a fish out of water.  Our cultural norm no longer applies since obvious cross-cultural differences exist.

Cross cultural design deals with how to go about effectively communicating in the midst of these cultural differences.  Its purpose is to minimize the negative impact of these differences by establishing common frameworks that cultures can then interact within.  Even through the world has become increasingly globalized over the last 50 -60 years, cultural differences still continue to exist and should be respected and understood.  Just because I understand something to be normal, doesn’t mean it is normal and understood by everyone else.

In terms of advertising design, cross-cultural communication is highly essential for getting a message across visually.  Much like all advertising campaigns, designers and marketers must know their target audience before they begin. This is usually a select demographic of people that the advertisement is meant to attract. For the most part, products and services of this type will be designed and marketed for a domestic audience only.  When you then try to market the product or service to an international audience, the cut and paste theory does not translate well.  It would be like the average American trying to read Hindi… zero comprehension. The messages encoded through advertising and visual design meant for one culture will inevitably be ineffective in another.  For this reason designers and marketers alike should conduct adequate research into the way other cultures think and interpret design before releasing their campaigns.

The primary goal of cross cultural design is to convince people that a particular product or service is for them.  It’s about letting them know visually that by purchasing it they will be benefited in some way, be it lifestyle wise, status wise financially or just through sheer convenience.  This is really at the core of all design campaigns.  Yet, when you take a campaign overseas there are different perceptions, ideologies and values as to what actually benefits ones life. The lens prescriptions are different, and thus the focus will either be clear or fussy depending on the prescription. There are different ideas of what is cool, what is easy, and what is quality.  What one culture might find cheap and tacky, another might find quite glamorous. What one culture finds funny, another might find offensive. These differences can take a design campaign intended for one cultural group completely ineffective when marketed to a group of people of a different culture.

Often it will be the simplest, most obscure elements of a design that need to be carefully inspected under the cross-cultural microscope.  Elements such as color, numbers, images and symbols will often not translate well from culture to culture.  For instance, in the West, white is the color for purity.  This is why women in the West will often wear a white dress at a wedding.  In China, however, white is the color of death…, which would seem to have the complete opposite effect.  Similarly, in the West, and in particular European countries, it is not uncommon to see quite provocative images used in advertising design.  These same images, if used in the Middle East, would cause shame and outrage. If they do appear in the Middle East, all skin will typically be blacked out.

It is for these subtle reasons that it is highly important for designers to understand their international audience, as well as their domestic one.  When designing cross culturally, the underpinning values and ideologies of a given cultural society need to be carefully analyzed and respected.  Ask questions such as what is the cultures primary religion? Is the society individualist, or collectivist? Do they cater to families, or individuals? Is there a hierarchy in the society? Is it a liberal society, or conservative? What are the predominant economic or political ideologies?  This all effects how advertising designs will be received if these aspects are not properly examined and taken into account when dealing cross culturally.

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