Building A Cross-Cultural Web Design For A Wider Audience

Building A Cross-cultural Web Design For A Wider Audience

Thanks to the democratizing influence of the internet, the world is becoming a smaller place. This doesn’t mean, though, that the world is becoming a more homogenous place – on the contrary, the more people go online, the more the web becomes a tasty Gumbo of multilingual pages. In fact, right now native English speakers account for less than one third of all web surfers, and that percentage is going to become less and less with time.

Building A Cross-cultural Web Design For A Wider Audience
Image credit: gabeisbored

This means that when it comes to building websites, designers now have to take more into account than simply following current design trends and optimizing for search engines – you should be taking into account the full range of people who’ll be accessing your site.

Design for Different Cultures

Studies have shown that culture does in fact influence the ways in which people process information, and this has a follow-through effect for the ways in which websites should be designed to appeal to different cultural audiences. Just take a look at the differences between McDonald’s UK site and their Indian site.

Macdonald's India

The Indian site makes much more use of Flash animation, uses images in place of text for links and is generally more ‘interactive’ looking, while the UK site is colorful but more static – to western eyes it looks more ‘professional’. McDonalds have obviously done their market research and discovered that this is what their Indian and British target markets are looking for, respectively, in a website.

Macdonald's UK

This is also indicative of a general design rule that should be applied when you are designing sites for either a High Context or Low Context culture, for example, China or India as opposed to the USA or Scandinavia. ‘Low context’ cultures embrace minimalism and straightforward information, while ‘high context’ cultures appreciate more color, imagery, interactivity and explanatory information.


Color is another design element that needs to be taken into account when targeting different cultures, as the cultural connotations of colors can vary greatly, as this graph shows.

Color Meanings

For instance, in most western cultures, the color red is associated with danger, passion and lust, while in India it’s associated with purity, and in China with celebrations and good luck. Similarly, orange is often seen as a creative color in the west, but in Egypt it denotes mourning. If you’re after a safe middle ground, blue has been shown to be the most universally acceptable color.

CSS and Unicode

Beyond the aesthetics of design and color scheme, though, there are a few concrete things that every designer can do to build a site that will travel across cultures easily. The first thing is to use the right tools – for instance, using CSS as your formatting tool will make it easier to change the images and the language of the text between pages, as it keeps your content separate from your design, so you won’t have to redesign from scratch if you change the language of a page.

Similarly, Unicode UTF-8 is a god-send for web design in multiple languages, as the one character encoder covers the scripts for over 90 languages – if you’re designing a site in a language that’s not covered by Unicode UTF-8, you may need to step back and ask yourself if there’s really any online audience speaking that language.


When it comes to your basic page navigation, it pays to take into account what will happen if you switch from a left-to-right language like English to a right-to-left language like Arabic or Hebrew.

Section Seven

Keeping your navigation horizontal rather than vertical will make it much easier to switch directions, as will keeping your design symmetrical, so you don’t have to move image and text boxes from one side to the other – plus, horizontal navigation looks creative and innovative, as evidenced by its use by many design companies for their websites, such as Section Seven in the above image.

Creative Hive

Alternatively, just fit everything onto the one page and keep your navigation nice and simple, such as in this tasty site by Melbourne design agency Hive Creative.

Effective Tips For Translation

The tips below illustrates why effective language translation is the most important part of designing a website so that it is accessible to multiple cultures.

Has Your Content Been Checked?

The most crucial thing to get right when designing a website for a culture other than your own – even more than the design, color scheme and navigation – is to make sure that the content itself is appropriate. This means making sure that your text is written with its target audience in mind, that it’s translated into the right language, and checked by a professional who lives in the target country.

Bad Translation

Getting your text checked by a native of the target country is a good idea as it’s easy to unintentionally offend when you’re communicating across cultures. Pepsi found this out, to their dismay, when they were sued in 2004 by the Indian city of Hyderabad, over an advertising campaign that saw the Indian cricket team celebrating while being served Pepsi by a young boy – not the best idea in a country where glorifying child labor is a sensitive issue.

Use a Suitable Tone

The tone that you use in your text needs to be appropriate for its audience, which requires an in-depth knowledge of the culture of the target country – for instance, your site for the UK may benefit from a casual, irreverent tone, and your website for the USA wouldn’t suffer from being packed with hyperbole, but your site for Germany should have neither of these things, it should be straight-forward and to the point. That’s why it’s important to have a professional translator, who lives in the target country, either write your content from scratch or translate and edit the content from your original site.

Of course, not everybody is going to have the resources to be hiring professional translators and copywriters and developing a dozen localised domains. In this case, machine translation can be a saviour.

Google Ad Words

Automated translation tools such as Google Translate are becoming increasingly sophisticated, and can often turn out perfectly comprehensible translations, provided that the original text is not too complicated. When writing copy that will be machine translated, it’s important to keep it as simple as possible. Keep your sentences short, with one thought per sentence, and never more than one conjunction. Go for simple sentence structure, for instance,

‘Customers say our service is efficient’

rather than

‘Customers often comment on the efficiency of the service we offer’.

Also, use basic language and avoid slang or colloquialisms, for instance, use ‘car’ rather than ‘motor’, ‘wheels’ or ‘ride’, as the translation engine likely won’t recognise these terms correctly in the context.

Global By Design

A recent study found that Google Translate was the best over-all machine translation engine, while Bing and Babelfish were both competitive with shorter passages – although Bing excelled in German and Italian and Babelfish was superior in Chinese.

Equally important, when it comes to translation, is making sure that your keywords are appropriate for your target market. Avoid using the direct dictionary translation of your English keywords, as the most popular keyword in a foreign language could be anything from a direct translation of the term into the target language, to a colloquialism, a synonym, or an adopted term from English or another language.

This is where it becomes essential to get the feedback of an in-country translator, who can advise on what the most likely keywords are for your product or service in the target country. You can then research the frequency of use of these keywords in local internet searches with a tool like Google’s to figure out which are the most popular and which will be effective ‘long-tail’ keywords.

Choose Appropriate Images

Finally, you also need to make sure that your images are appropriate for the demographic – using the same imagery for, say, your Chinese and Russian websites is only going to confuse one or both of the target audiences – Coca Cola hits the mark on their Chinese site and their Russian site by using imagery that is specific to each target market.

Cross-Cultural Web Design For The Future

By keeping these simple tips in mind and doing a bit of preliminary research on each of your target markets before building your site, you’ll find it’s not an insurmountable task to create websites that are easily adaptable across cultural and language divides – sites that will be the standard in the not-too-distant future.


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