Cross-Cultural Web Design

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As soon as you publish a website, it’s instantly available all over the world. But just because it can be viewed globally, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be well-received in other parts of the world. To achieve true global reach for your websites you need to be aware of cross-cultural differences and make sure you design accordingly.

Concentrate on content

Content is the most important element of any website. Make sure you provide content that is well written and relevant to your target audience. Remember that 75% of the world’s population do not speak English as their first language. So, to be truly multi-cultural you are going to have to translate your content at some point. Having good quality content from the beginning will make for a more successful translation. Try to avoid slang, colloquialisms and abbreviations.

CSS and layout

Using cascading style sheets to separate your content from design will be a big help in making your websites more accessible to different cultures. It makes it easier to switch the language of a website because the translated text can be dropped into an existing design without too much disruption. You can also modify the colour scheme of your website just by editing the style sheet – we will look at colour in more detail later.

When you style your text, remember that scripts in different languages require different line  heights and widths. Also consider the fact that the same paragraph in English may take up more space when translated into, say, German. You should bear this in mind when you are designing the size of your text areas. Using UTF-8 characters will ensure that the language is compatible with as many languages as possible.

Not all languages are read from left to right. The commonly-held theory that the eye is drawn to the top left area of a web page will not necessarily apply when the text is being read from right to left. You should also carefully consider the position of your navigation menus and sidebars. A menu on the left side of the page may not be very convenient for people who read from right to left. This problem can be avoided by using a horizontal menu at the top of the page.

Take care with colour

Keep in mind that colours can have different meanings for different cultures around the world. For example, red in Western cultures is often associated with power and passion, but in India, it can mean ‘purity’ and for the Chinese it often relates to celebrations and good luck. Use your visitor data to determine where your visitors come from and ensure that the colour scheme you have chosen is appropriate.

Styles of marketing

We discussed earlier that it’s easy to adapt a website for different regions of the world by using CSS, dropping in translated content and tweaking the colour scheme by editing the stylesheet. However sometimes, a complete redesign is necessary. This is usually because different cultures respond better to different styles of marketing and different design concepts.

This can be seen by comparing the Coca-Cola websites in Sweden and China. You can see that they are completely different designs. This is because the populations in these two countries respond better to very different styles of marketing. The Swedish website is rather minimalist, using a white background, modern-looking sans-serif font and a subdued Coca-Cola logo. It’s quite a sophisticated look that is in tune with Western European tastes and it seems to have a fairly personal, individual feel. This suggests that the marketers want to treat their Swedish customers as individuals, because research has shown that Western cultures tend to have a more individualist mindset.



The Chinese version of the site is more bold and brash. There is a large logo in the center of the header. The main image is of the Coca-Cola brand lit-up in neon lights in a busy city street. There is a strip at the bottom of the page showing all the brands that Coca-Cola owns. The message that’s being put across is that Coca-Cola is big, successful, well-respected and established brand. This isn’t speaking to customers as individuals but highlighting Coke’s enormous global popularity. This is very in tune with a more Eastern mindset that tends to be fairly collectivist in outlook. Consumers in China relate better to a brand that is respected and used by millions of other people – there is far less emphasis on the individual.

As you can see, successful cross-cultural web design requires some careful consideration, but if you start with the points we’ve looked at here, you will be well on your way to making your websites more accessible across cultures.

About the author

Christian Arno is the founder and Managing Director of global translation agency and localization specialists Lingo24. Launched in 2001, Lingo24 now has over 120 employees spanning four continents and clients in over sixty countries. In the past twelve months, they have translated over thirty million words for businesses in every industry sector and their projected turnover for 2010 is £6.3m.

Follow us on Twitter @crazyleaf.

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