When cultures collide

In the modern era of globally distributed media, our creative output can be viewed by a hugely diverse audience that reaches across each nationality, race and religion. As a result, creatives risk miscommunicating and, at worse, offending a portion of the their audience with poorly targeted design.

The recent Jyllands-Posten cartoon incident is a clear example of cultural insensitivity. Muslims felt that the cartoons depicting the Islamic prophet Muhammad went beyond justifiable satire and were designed to cause offence. Clearly mocking a religious icon is bound to promote a reaction, but because the Islamic faith prohibits any depiction of Muhammad, the images proved doubly offensive. In fact, strict interpretations of Islam prohibit the illustration of any living thing.

"I decided to stop putting any picture of humans or animals in my design works as they contain souls. Instead I decided to work with colour spaces, abstract lines, geometric shapes and plants as much as I can," says Ahmad Adel Eldardiry of Egyptian design firm newhive, whose business is built upon Islamic teachings.

The Jyllands-Posten cartoonist's satirical work carried a clear political message, but is it possible for creative design to create similar controversy?

Culture clash
There are many examples of no-go areas unique to certain cultures. Middle Eastern countries have more conservative attitudes towards nudity than the West. Artwork containing even the smallest amount of exposed female flesh is regularly censored in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates - even Computer Arts has fallen foul of the censors with one of its more suggestive front covers.

Germany and Japan, for example, are both particularly sensitive regarding references to their World War II history, while monarchies such as Thailand are sensitive regarding their figureheads, but social mores are just a small part of the issue. Understanding particular cultural sensitivities will help you avoid the pitfalls, but there are other ways to communicate more effectively with your audience.

When working with specific nationalities and ethnicities it pays to do your homework, says Ronnie Lipton, author of Designing Across Cultures. "Try to avoid design clich©s and curb knee-jerk reactions, such as: 'Oh, a Chinese audience. Let's use a dragon and red and gold colours'. And although you might be satisfied with a photograph of a person who's Asian, the audience can often easily identify the person's specific native country."

Design draws on a set of signs and signifiers, which vary dependent on culture. Colours, for example, can have very different meanings in different cultures. In the West, black is the colour most commonly associated with death, while in Asia it is white. Green and yellow also have particular associations in Islam and among Buddhist demographics.

While European Roman languages are read from left to right, both Hebrew and Arabic are written from right to left, and many Asian languages are written top to bottom. The obstacles these differences could potentially present are clear.

The Arabic language in particular presents problems on the web. "Arabic is a right to left language like Hebrew, but it's much more complicated because it has connected characters," says Adel Eldardiry, who developed Flaraby - an application that enables designers to combine Arabic text with English in both Flash and HTML.

But even when a design features no written elements, the way your intended audience scans a page or screen will affect the arrangement and design of icons and elements marketed to those countries.

Clearly creating a design that works universally is going to be difficult, which is why websites are often localised for separate languages, but there are numerous anecdotal instances of bad translations. When Coca-Cola first shipped to China, the company named the product with a word that when pronounced sounded like Coca-Cola. The problem? The characters used actually meant Bite The Wax Tadpole.

Connect with your audience
Lipton says the best way to get around problems of this kind is to use a native speaker and professional translator of the destination language to translate, and use a native to 'transliterate'. "This way you go beyond the language to ensure that appropriate tone, colours, symbols and type are used for your target audience."

If you're still nervous about creating designs for a global market, Lipton has some final advice. "Your job as a designer is to create designs that connect with your audience, whether global or domestic," she says. "Designs that connect won't offend. Getting there with an unfamiliar global audience is scarier than with a familiar domestic one, but the process and the need are just the same."

Designing Across Cultures is published by How Design Books