Construct a Framework for a Cross-Cultural Design

Nowadays Graphic Designers work globally in many different Countries. The designer should visually communicate symbols and colors. These elements are part of our social everyday life and come together with a various range of meanings which are different for each culture.This makes obvious how much the study of the cross-cultural communication is important for properly deliver the desired message.

Designers sometimes tend to propose solutions which reflect their own tastes and social habits. Aesthetic canons are strictly related to the environment and background information about the target should be well studied. In a cross-cultural communication the use of symbols which are culturally accepted is field which must be taken in consideration during preliminary studies and benchmarking.

During this article we are going to explore the wide range of cultural issues you need to bear in mind for designing cross-cultural communication products.Starting froma target, that is part of a culture different from ours, we will try to construct a framework useful for creatingan effective design product.

  • Firstly we will define which the most common basic cross-cultural design patterns are.
  • Secondly we will see how to construct a framework to identify them.
  • Finally we will close with a practical case study on this topic.

Let’s start!

From Global to Local for a Better User Experience

In the globalization era we have the tendencies in bringing all our knowledge and experience with us and projecting them in the most common and shared opinions. Economics, marketing and customer approaches have been transformed and standardized to be suitable and easily adapted for worldwide markets.

These attitudes, once globally shared, become international, developed out of specific culture so that they can be, with a minimum effort, localized and adapted to the target.

As part of the selling and promotional process, the same has happened to the design.

The globalization of the resources and the internationalization of the rules are important elements of a market which requires expertise from all over the World. Common rules make easier design and development,error are avoided ensuring a better usability.

However, this process doesn’t provide a comparable user experience. This includes many other elements which are more related to the local and to the effective use. The usage situation and the final message decoding also depend on recognizable cultural patterns which the designer should be able to apply.

Basic Cross-cultural Design Patterns

How can we define culture?

On Wikipedia we find the following definition:

– An integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for symbolic thought and social learning
– The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group


A pattern is constituted by customs that are evaluated as standard values for the culture where they are shared. This point out how relative they are and how differently they are perceived in different environments.

As designers we should try to spoil the differences in order to create graphic products that are properly received and decoded by the target.

What contribute in constructing a design patterns?

The list here below includes some of the main elements basicelements for a cross-cultural design.

  • Language
  • Symbols
  • Images
  • Colors
  • Navigation

A message is perceived on the basis of a wide range of factors.Designers sometimes take graphic decision based on their personal taste and culture training. Proposing solutions which reflect our own environment is easy because it is constantly under our eyes and it is part of our daily life. Our aesthetic sensitivity is affected by thoughts, behaviors, and feelings. Last but not least, what other people think about us also have a great influence in our life as human beings. We are deeply connected with our social structure.

The difficult is trying to separate our habits and location from our professional life, inspecting and understanding differences which make our designs effective in a definite local, international or global market.

This ability requires time, training and patience.

Let’s try to analyze more in detail the aspects which are involved in the cultural design pattern creation process. This will be a helpful starting point towards a cross-cultural habit.


One of the most important element of a message, either visual or not, is the language. A designer should be aware that each culture has its own method for creating sentences, building up situations, recreating scenes and dialogues. Words and expressions, which are common for a Country, could have completely different meanings in others. Themes which appeal in a market may not be appropriate for different audiences.

This is a quite important issue whenever we produce advertising or naming a brand. There are famous examples of important brands which had to change products name to fit them well with the local market they want to entry. Marketing experts have to be aware of a negative meaning of a name and make accurate researches before launching a product line which may be unsuccessful.


Symbols are recognized differently in each society.They are a cultural product which is a metaphor whose meaning is commonly shared.

The same could be said about icons. They refer to real-object illustrating them in a simplified way.

Icons and visual symbols are the core of a creative design project mainly based on graphic elements.

Computer icons, in conjunction with computer windows, menus and a pointing device, form the graphical user interface (GUI) of the computer system, and enable the user to easily and intuitively navigate the system.


Most of them have been taken as a standard to warrantee a common efficiency and usability. The standardization rules have been collected under ISO (International Organization for Standardization) 9241.

ISO 9241 is a multi-part standard from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) covering ergonomics of human-computer interaction.


Particular types of symbols are the emoticons. Initially deserved to convey non-verbal aspects of a message, a way to show emotions in a text, they become so much part of our daily interaction that they have been employed also in print advertising or verbal expressions where they actually are useless. How many times, during a real, face-to-face chat with a friend, you have used the expression LOL? It is a conventional way to say that something let you laughing about.

Emoticons, as well as the majority of metaphoric systems, are deeply related to the culture. Some of them could be in common however the use of visual puns should be primarily inspected.

What else is similar to icons and symbols? The answer is so obvious: images.


Images are, as a matter of fact, a visual language. Verbal message is important however non-verbal has often a greater importance.

Images are like a graphic novel useful to support, or even replace, what of verbal is in a communication.

In building up a cross-cultural communication product you shouldchoose the images carefully.

The local, in this case, is more relevant than the global. If you want your target recognize him in what you are showing, you have to consider his demographic and social peculiarities.

If a service has a target of young people from 18 to 30 which sense could have showing them people younger or older? The image build a story: a subject has a need which the service or the product suggested can solve in the best way. The aim is allowing the mirroring between the subject of the scene and the target.

To localize a website, advertising or a promotional material is always better displayingpeople that can be recognized as part of the local group, society or, in a larger view, nationality.

Through the images you have to recreate the visual clues which match the user expectations.

We will see later in the article how images can be extremely useful to construct a framework to recognize cultural patterns.

In the meantime we still have a couple of elements which worth to mentionas part of a balanced cultural design: colors and navigation interface.


Color is a powerful visual communication component. It meaning represents a shared amount of memories which take their origins in the roots of a Country, in its history and, consequently, in its culture. The symbolic association with colors, the feelings and ideas that they evoke, are quite different through the World. Creating an exhaustive table of associations is extremely difficult. Colors are ambiguous and very often they have both positive and negative connotation, even in the same culture.

For example in the European culture white is the color of the purity, the color of a new life, it is used in weddings and christenings and other religious celebrations.

In Japanwhite is the color of the gods, it issacred and, again,it represents purity and is used at weddings. Despite that it also is the color of mourning and death and it is used at funerals.

In addition to that, even mixingcolorsaffects the final meaning.Still staying in Japan, the white combined with red are the traditional Japanese flag colors, they represent celebrationand happiness, energy and life force.

In a cross-cultural perspective, aiming a global audience it is worth accomplishing a deep study on this topic exploring the most recognized associations. We can’t obviously make a color mix that could go for everyone. A sort of universal palette combination is impossible to obtain. Color meanings awareness could just help to avoid communication failures.

Navigation and way of reading

Readers scan differently contents depending on their training, habits and studies. Japanese writeand read vertically from right to left, Arabic and Hebrew read from right to left, the usual Western way of reading is horizontally from left to right. Studying the reading and writing system of people is important to make the navigation of a website or the legibility of a text more usable for the readers.

As per website navigations, this is the reason why a menu on the left or, otherwise, on the right column could not be always the best choice to do.A good and immediate option,suitable for a larger number of occasions, could be a classic horizontal navigation bar on the top of the page.

The Design Pattern Mix: How It Contribute to Increase Sells

All those previously analyzed elements contribute in creating a shared design pattern which increase sells, usability and user experience. They capture attention and improve communication.

Symbols and images improve the recognition of the brand. Furthermore, we can affirm that they ARE the brand. They represent a company identity towards its public, in the measure in which its logo is a colored symbol fulfilled of meanings.

Colors and conventional habits help to understand the content of a text, for example, highlighting most important sentences. Since several studies have demonstrated that we read scanning texts, colors and writing conventionsmake the text more readable and clear.

Colors and icons increase the reader attention making easier remembering important notices such as warnings or safety notes.

Colors and symbols provide an easier navigation through a website because they are immediately recognizable. Important texts which want to push for an action from the reader have been iconized in buttons and we now found almost everywhere call to action buttons. Why that? The answer is easy: they are bigger, more colored and attractive than a plain text link.

Effective design uses colors, tones, textures to create interest and attract the attention of the reader. Using design patterns the designer is able to create communication products which not only are usable but also more user experience oriented. The synergy between usability and user experiences attitude can mark the difference on the market and increase sells.

Spotting out different cultural habits

The concept of a cultural palette, firstly inspected by Sandra E. Moriarty and Lisa Rohein their article Cultural Palettes: An Exercise in Sensitivity for Designers (Journalism Educator, Winter, 1992, p. 32-37), could be useful to construct a framework for a more extensive use. In their study the researchers only compared colors and symbols.

This is a method to spoil out different cultural habits by studying a series of design product which comes from a determined culture. It is not far from the competitor analysis which should be always accomplished before starting a new project.In our case we can use all those elements we have previously indicated as components of a cultural pattern to build the framework.

You firstly select a bunch of graphics and communicative products representative, for example, of a Country and analyze which images, colors, symbols are used to express definite meanings. Collect from books, websites, brochure, company literature, advertising or anything else from the media communication world of a definite cultural target.

You need then to study their artistic styles and symbols to put yourself in their shoes.In this way you become able to understand them, their needs and feelings better. You make a dive in their cultural process and you become able to mix colors, language and symbols which reflect their cultural pattern. You need to find what symbols are appropriate and which are considered offensive and should be avoided.

You have now a list that can be compared with others similarly obtained. The result of the comparison constitutes a cross-cultural pattern analysis.
Finally youcompare the founded results and organizethem in a kind of mind map.

How to Compare Results

The main scope of the study is recognizing the visual communication message being able to decode it despite our own culture is the lenses through we look all the others. Although we are aware of that, we unintentionally apply a kind of filter on our perception. Comparing the results we have concentrate our efforts in understanding the different and the odd and in assuming it as normal for the inspected culture.

Only taking the distance from the frame constituted by our symbols, traditions and aesthetic canons, adopting, as much as possible, an objective eye,than we can hope to getting close to the cultural pattern. A small victory reached towards a real cross-cultural design.

A great design is as greater as it is aimed to and properly received from its target.

You have to develop the empathy with your public to create design which are usable (effective and functional), as well as user experience centered (emotional, directed to the user satisfaction, positive feeling maker).

With a new consciousness given by this approach you are now able to construct your framework.

The framework construction

The mind map construction need our favorite tools, scattered pencils, rubbers, colors and pieces of paper, displayed on the table of our analysis.

Put on the center the NEED which you have intended to inspect. Human needs define your design challenge because through your message you want to advise a solution, replying to emotional of physical necessities.

Continue revising your notes and populating the map with what you have observed from local visual communication product analysis.

Particularly you have to write down:

  • How people act
  • What they do
  • What they say
  • How they feel
  • The color associated to this feeling
  • Images and symbols recurrences in similar situations

A quick example: Rent Car Services

I would want to give you a glance of what I shown in theory until now. This is just a quick example because, obviously, a real analysis research takes a lot of time, resources and people.

I’ve decided to inspect the Rent Car Service taking a couple of sample websites from three spot areas of the World: the U.S., Japan and Europe.

I’ve googled, as we said, the NEED: a car rental service. I’ve selected two car rental companies for each area:

The U.S.:


instantShift - Framework for a Cross-Cultural Design


instantShift - Framework for a Cross-Cultural Design


Toyota Rent

instantShift - Framework for a Cross-Cultural Design


instantShift - Framework for a Cross-Cultural Design



instantShift - Framework for a Cross-Cultural Design


instantShift - Framework for a Cross-Cultural Design

What they are in common is the good service idea, the customer attitude. However, even offering the same business, each company reflects a different idea.

Let’s analyze each concept and its keywords:


  • easy access to the service (less than 60 seconds),cheap (save money, free), guarantees(pay back)
  • blue and orange colors
  • big car on the homepage


  • easy access to the service (rapid rental), cheap (lowest price), guarantees (guarantee)
  • blue, red, ochrecolors
  • big car on the homepage

Toyota Rent:

  • blink to the traditions and the Toyota quality
  • green and orange colors
  • traditionalukio-e drawing, a lot of icons to make the access easier.


  • easy access to the service (rapid rental), cheap (lowest price), guarantees (guarantee)
  • blue, red colors
  • bright colorful visuals related to leisure and environment attention

instantShift - Framework for a Cross-Cultural Design

instantShift - Framework for a Cross-Cultural Design


  • easy access to the service (no stress), dedicated benefits (no queues)
  • black and yellow
  • big visuals which recalls spare time, leisure

instantShift - Framework for a Cross-Cultural Design


  • dedicated packages to save money
  • blue and white
  • big visuals which recalls spare time, leisure, family concepts

instantShift - Framework for a Cross-Cultural Design

The result is evident even in so few samples to compare. Saving money and customer care are the core concepts which also include customer’s leisure, spare time with family and environment attention to tacking care of your children future. These main points definitely can be considered the starting framework for other new car rental service websites or ads. Each concept, with its own local peculiarity, is commonly recognizable.

To sum up

The following steps summarize the process of doing a visual cross-cultural analysis:

  1. Study cross-cultural clues
  2. Learn how to recognize them
  3. Do research and compare situations which replies to a need
  4. Find out how cultural patterns are changed compared to your usual point of view
  5. Fill the cross-cultural design framework
  6. Create a cross-cultural design suitable for the inspected market.


Cross-cultural design should be studied to increase the user experience across cultural and territorial boundaries. It is clear that creating a design which conveys meanings which can be really globally interpreted is not easy. What we would mean to transmit with this article is showing that, understanding the cultural differences, create a user-centered and meaning shared design is possible.

Designers need to leave the safe and comfortable zone of their own cultural values and experiences and try experimenting through a proactive willing of understanding other cultures. Adopting an international perspective they will be able to explore new creativity aspects which are a long-term investment in a market everyday more “glocal”, global and local at the same time.

To help this process we have seen a method that can be used as framework to create an effective cross-cultural design. It is not exhaustive but it sure can be a good point to start.

I would love to hear your comments about this topic and which methods or studies you adopt to create design which goes out the boundaries of your culture. Which perspective do you assume? Which aspects you give more relevance? Share your experience! This is the most effective way to learn more. Thank you!

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  1. Please proofread your article.
    I’ve found this text roundabout and it was hard not to look for logical misconceptions.

  2. Interesting article, developping cross-cultural webdesigns should not be underestimated!

  3. thanks for sharing this article…

  4. perfect and well directed post. i am sure every reader will found it very useful like me.

  5. I like this article Cross-cultural Design Patterns.

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