Culture shapes how people perceive the world. There can be a huge difference in how people in different regions or communities receive and interpret information. Sometimes, the lack of localization can lead to misunderstanding and confusion. But even if you manage to avoid translation faux pas, the modern user is extremely capricious when it comes to user experience. People expect not only the perfect language but also proper visual and interactive clues. These visual clues are the key to winning your customers’ hearts and minds. Sadly, they are also very hard to localize.

There is a growing body of research on the topic of cultural perception. The research helps marketers adjust their content according to audience expectations. This article is intended to explore current research findings and give you a step by step plan to successful localization. Whether you’re developing a product or designing a graphic for social media, this article will help you get closer to your customers no matter which part of the world they live in.

Key Sections to Note

  1. Research on cultural differences
  2. Cyr’s characteristics of design that need attention in the cultural context
  3. Hofstede’s five dimensions of cultural differences
  4. Application of research in design
  5. Final word

Research on cultural differences

A lot of research has been published on the topic of cultural differences and perception. Some of the work has gained huge popularity in the design community. The works of Fons Trompenaars and Geert Hofstede are most frequently cited by graphic and web designers.

The two researchers studied how problems are solved in different cultures. Their study draws conclusions from surveys conducted among IBM employees in 53 countries. The researchers discovered that the differences between cultures were very distinctive. They also defined characteristics that separate one culture from another. The Hofstede’s research is often used as a framework that leads to better understanding of culture.

While Hofstede focused on cultures, Cyr took her research into a different dimension. In her research, Dianne Cyr has put more emphasis on the design characteristics that need attention in the cultural context.

Cyr’s characteristics of design that need attention in the cultural context

Cyr’s work forces designers to pay more attention to the following characteristics of design:

  • Language, as one of the most important aspects of culture, helps communicate and transmit culture. But when language is moved online, it presents a certain challenge from a cultural perspective. The language has to be translated properly and presented visually.
  • Layout is a connecting link between the user and the system, that aids information understanding, and comprehension. The layout includes such elements as navigation, menu and grid structure.
  • Symbols are the elements that contain the meaning or indicate actions. These can be icons, arrows, currencies signs and so forth.
  • Content describes the product or features. It’s one of the most important parts of design, as content contains vital information that has a direct impact on the user.
  • Multimedia includes images, videos, animation, illustrations, and sounds.
  • Color is perceived differently by cultures. In some cases, the use of color is dictated by the differences in language. This point is supported by the Whorfian hypothesis: our perception of the world is limited by our vocabulary and shaped by the language we speak (Whorf, 1956). The Whorfian hypothesis was tested by asking respondents to identify mid-colors between green and blue. People who speak languages with only one word for green and one word for blue were unable to detect differences in mid-colors.

Hofstede’s five dimensions of cultural differences

Hofstede defined 5 fundamental values across which cultures acquire their distinctive pattern.

1. Power vs. distance

This characteristic refers to how different cultures perceive power. While some cultures accept power easily, others prefer a more democratic power style. High power countries place more value on official and unofficial signs of power such as certifications, stamps, logos. In high power cultures information can only be accessed by powerful individuals, hence before people can trust you, you need to show the proof of authority. Here is how this value influences design:

  • Pictures and visuals containing directional clues will be perceived positively in high power countries. On the contrary, pictures with idle people or landscape photography will have more impact on low power cultures.
  • Thoughtful navigation instills the sense of confidence in trust in high power cultures. In the low power cultures hectic organization that fosters a sense of exploration will be favored more.

2. Collectivism vs. individualism

How deeply the person is integrated into society greatly influences their perception. Collectivist cultures like to stay in a group and praise team efforts. Individualistic societies tend to be more competitive and focus on individual achievements.

  • Messages that show the path to personal development and extrinsic rewards work better in individualistic societies. Collectivist cultures favor messages that focus on building the community.
  • Collectivist cultures regard elderly as a source of wisdom and knowledge, which can be reflected in images and visual assets. Individualistic cultures appreciate the power of the youth.

3. Femininity vs. masculinity

This value refers to how emotional roles are distributed in the society. Masculine cultures are more direct, assertive and competitive. Feminine cultures are open, they value communication and relationships.

  • In masculine cultures, the difference between genders is emphasized, with family values being the central part of the cultural landscape. Feminine cultures, on the other hand, have more freedom with gender roles
  • Visuals that depict the winning party or abstract achievement related concepts will have more impact in masculine cultures. In feminine cultures use images that picture social activities or day to day life.

4. Uncertainty avoidance

Some have a hard time accepting risks and try to regulate every aspect of life with rules. Others try to avoid rules at all costs. High uncertainty cultures need clear directions and limited choice to feel comfortable. Low uncertainty cultures can easily navigate in the sea of information with little input from the managing side.

  • Use content that is linked to concrete people or clearly depicts the message in high uncertainty avoidance cultures. Opt for symbols and “big picture” messages in low uncertainty avoidance cultures.
  • Minimalistic clear colors are preferred by high uncertainty cultures while bright and deep shades are preferred by low uncertainty avoidance cultures.

5. Long vs. short-term orientation

Long-term oriented cultures value long-term planning, saving and patience. Short-term oriented cultures favor the present moment and make choices based on current demands. Long-term oriented cultures prefer relationship-based stories to communicate the message and place importance on the pragmatic value. Short-term oriented cultures need to see truthful facts and are drawn to the promises of instant results.

  • Short-term oriented cultures perceive rules to be imperative for the creation of a safer environment in the moment. Long-term oriented cultures perceive good behavior as one of the ways to achieve a greater future.
  • Focus on the company’s mission and values in the long-term oriented culture. The short-term oriented culture will be more enticed by instant gratification. Short-term oriented cultures also experience stronger effects of the Fear of Missing Out phenomenon.

Application of research in design

Research around culture is fascinating, but design and business are about the application of the findings to your daily operations. Here is how you can apply this data to your graphic design endeavors:

Step 1. Understand the cultural differences

The first step to creating impactful graphics is customer research. But before you dive deeper into specific customer segments, take a look at the country’s trends and themes. Your audience might be rebels who defy culture, but since they live in a certain location, culture influences them nevertheless. Create a blueprint of culture and note overarching country themes. Get access to people who are familiar with the culture and talk to them. In multicultural cities such as New York or London, it’s easy to find an authentic area where you can immerse yourself in the culture.

Step 2. Creating buyer personas

The second step would be to create buyer personas. Buyer Personas are descriptive profiles of your customers. Buyer Personas help understand the customer better and adjust the content and product to their needs. Unlike, cultural research Buyer Personas provide the path deeper into customer minds, underlying desires and pain points that are specific to the particular customer segment.

Step 3. Cross-cultural branding

Multiculturalism doesn’t start from design, it starts at the core of your company and brand. This is especially true for cloud software and new technologies that tend to touch lives of thousands of people outside of their base location. Cross-cultural branding starts with the name of your company and your logo. History has known many cases when the brand had to rename itself due to the confusion that stems from translation. Lay’s chips go by the name Chipsy’s in Brazil, KFC was turned into PFK in Canada and Burger King restaurants are called Hungry Jack’s in Australia. Since the name affects your visual assets, take the time to research chosen words if you’re planning a global expansion.

Step 4. Localization

Now, look at culture from the point of values defined by Hofstede. Determine where on the spectrum the culture can be positioned with regards to these values. By the end of it, you’ll have a clear picture in your head of what’s acceptable and how you can drive better results using cultural differences. Adjust your design according to your findings. In this process, you’ll have to exercise empathy skills and put yourself in customer shoes.

Step 5. Adaptation and testing

It’s not enough to simply see your graphics from the customer perspective. There are a lot of things you can misinterpret. Always rely on data to check if you’re making a real impact. Surveys and analytics are the best way to understand if the design is working. Don’t despair if you didn’t get it the first time. Test, improve and test again. In the process, you’ll learn more about the culture, which you can then apply to other aspects of business.

Final word

To sum up, cultural preferences can’t be ignored but never make assumptions about them unless you do a thorough research and test different designs customized for different cultural segments. Avoid one-fits-all solution, instead, opt for custom brand assets that allow you to adjust strategies to customers’ perspective. And finally, don’t assume that geographical borders equal culture. See culture as a fluid entity that doesn’t have strict borders and can change over time. When creating design materials, highlight brand values that have universal appeal and the rest based on users’ cultural preferences. After you refine your strategy and tactics, remember that the DesignBold team is here to help you create the visual elements necessary to achieve your goals.

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