How to: Cross-Cultural Web Design

Web design for the world

One of the joys of designing for the web is that your work has an immediate global audience. It’s exciting to think that your designs can be seen as easily half way round the world as in your own home town. As well as being an exciting aspect of the web, this global reach also poses a challenge to designers. You need to be aware that different cultures view and consume the web in different ways.

You can overcome these cultural differences and build more accessible websites by considering a few important factors.

Killer content

Content is the most important element of any website. Your visitors may find elegant design pleasing to the eye, but what they are really interested in is the quality of the content and how useful it is to them.

Providing content which is well-written and relevant to your target audience will be a big help to ensure cross-cultural accessibility for your websites. Remember that 75% of the world’s population do not speak English as their first language. It’s likely that your content will need to be translated at some point. Developing good quality content from the outset will make for a smoother translation process. For example, try to avoid slang, colloquialisms and abbreviations. Metaphors may also have different meanings in different countries.

When using images, video and other visual content, always be culturally sensitive. For instance, photos of scantily dressed models may be perfectly acceptable in Western cultures, but may be highly offensive in other parts of the world.

Know your tools: CSS and Unicode

The correct use of CSS enables you to separate your content from the design and layout of your website. This will make switching between translated content a far simpler process, enabling you to roll out your website in multiple languages with minimal effort. Likewise, you should also be sure to use UTF-8 character encoding because it is compatible with over 90 languages.

Flexible layouts

Even something as simple as the layout of your pages can affect how appealing your website is to different cultures. Not all languages are read from left to right, so the positioning of side navigation and sidebar content may have an impact on usability in different parts of the world. This can be avoided by the use of a top horizontal navigation structure.

Also remember that different language scripts will require different line heights and widths. You should bear this in mind when you are styling your text. You should also allow some flexibility in the size of text areas, because a paragraph in English may require less space than, say, its German translation.

Choose colours carefully

Colour is one of the most subjective factors in web design. But it’s not just a matter of personal taste – colours can also have strong cultural significance, with different meanings and associations in different parts of the world.

For example, yellow is often regarded as the colour of sunshine and happiness. For many people in the Western world it has fairly positive connotations. However, it can also symbolise danger, particularly when paired with black – think of yellow and black warning signs and many stinging insects which are yellow and black. In Egypt, yellow is far from being happy and upbeat, as it is the colour of mourning, whilst in Japan, yellow is often associated with courage and bravery.

The power of Web Analytics

Web design is an ongoing activity. If you are involved in maintaining and updating websites, the design process will continue after the initial launch of the site. This is the beauty of working on the web – a website is always evolving. You can use your web analytics to accurately determine the geographic location of your visitors. This allows you to tweak your design to suit the cultural requirements of your visitors. For example, if you notice that a high proportion of your visitors are coming from South-East Asia, you might change your colour scheme to one which is more appealing to that culture. You could also ensure that your text areas are adequate for, say, Thai and Vietnamese scripts.

By staying mindful of the many cultural factors that can influence web design, you are more likely to produce websites that can transcend cultural differences.

About the author


Christian Arno is the founder and Managing Director of global translations company Lingo24. Launched in 2001, Lingo24 employs some 4,000 professional freelance translators covering a hundred different language combinations. Follow Christian on Twitter: @Lingo24chr.

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