Most of us start with what we know. We work on things we are familiar with and feel passionate about. When we’re showing them to other people, we use images and words that feel right to us.

But we live in an increasingly connected world, and what works in Chicago might not work in Chiang Mai. That’s where cross-cultural design, in which products and their packaging are reshaped for different markets, comes in. So what is cross-cultural design, how can it go wrong and how can you do it right?

an image of the world with different people connected by lines around the globe
Illustration by OrangeCrush

What is cross-cultural design?

Cross-cultural design embraces cultural differences. Its designers use their knowledge of different people and places to build products that work in different markets.

Cross-cultural design is becoming more and more important. We live in an increasingly borderless retail landscape—an estimated 2.14 billion people bought products online in 2021. But, despite the rise of remote working, many companies are based in a single geographical location. And while many workplaces are growing more diverse, many draw their staff from a talent pool that may be limited by nationality, class, race, gender, age or sexuality.

Building a more open and inclusive office culture, and ensuring your recruitment policies work to exclude bias, can help you build a more varied workforce. And for that team to build products that can really travel, you’ll need to internationalize or localize your products.

alien diversity
Difference is everywhere, and cross-cultural design can help you reach a wider audience by Andreask84

Localization, internationalization and you

There are several overlapping approaches to designing for a varied world:

  • keeping the same product and packaging wherever you go
  • internationalization, in which you modify your design and content so the same item can be sold in different destinations without causing confusion or offense
  • localization, in which you change your offering (perhaps using different colors or artwork, or adjusting the product itself) for different target markets

No single approach offers a silver bullet. Instead, different companies will need to pick and choose based on their size, strategy and products.

When the design doesn’t translate

Bad cross-cultural design can be disastrous. Even something as seemingly straightforward as color can elicit a wide range of responses. In much of the world, yellow is associated with sunshine and happiness, but it’s also directly linked with the royal family in Thailand and with weakness and jealousy in France (where criminals’ doors were painted yellow in the medieval era). In China, it’s associated with both ancient emperors and modern pornography.

If you’ve not done your research, navigating these associations can feel like a high-wire balancing act—and some big companies have fallen flat on their face. Some mistakes have been simple translation errors, like the Belgian Ford campaign that translated “every car has a high-quality body” to the worrying “every car has a high-quality corpse.”

pampers box
Storks are associated with babies in some cultures, but not others via Maple Leaf Mommy

Others came from the way users interpret images: Amazon realized that the magnifying glass icon it used to indicate search was confusing Indian testers, who thought it looked more like a ping-pong paddle. When Pampers launched in Japan, its promotion echoed US campaigns and featured storks delivering babies. The idea of wild birds handling infants does not resonate in Japan, where babies are delivered by floating giant peaches.

The impact of these marketing fails can be substantial—Pampers struggled in Japan until it introduced a new campaign. Which makes it all the more important to test products before release, as Amazon did in India. A few small tweaks (like including a pop-up description by the search bar) and the site was good to go.

green mermaid beer label
This beer label’s green tint might evoke jealousy, wealth or leprechauns—while green was also the Prophet Mohammed’s favorite color by Bence Balaton

How much do cultures vary?

How much variety there is between and within different cultures continues to be the subject of debate. Fons Trompenaars and Geert Hofstede have both produced influential models, and more recently Senongo Akpem has drilled into the digital side of cross-cultural design.

These models suggest that different cultures sit in different places on various spectrums. Hofstede’s model features categories such as:

  • Individualism vs. collectivism (with the US, for instance, valuing personal freedom more than South Korea, which puts the group over the individual)
  • Certainty vs. ambiguity (with Germany having less enthusiasm for unexpected outcomes than Australia)
  • Indulgence vs. restraint (with Nigeria having a higher emphasis on enjoying life compared to Morocco, where social norms are generally stricter)
  • Long-term vs. short-term aims (with Bangladesh, for example, focusing more on future goals than the more “in the moment” attitude of Colombia)

Other categories discussed include how much emotions are expressed, to what extent work and personal lives are kept separate, and how important rules are.

world map with location markers in different places
By Cope_HMC

Some commentators see these models as limited or reliant on stereotypes. And it’s worth pointing out that there will be more differences between individuals in a country than between countries. But these models provide a start point for thinking about the ways in which your products may be received in different cultures. The next step for any company that wants to succeed with cross-cultural design is to dig deeper.

Collaboration and research are crucial

The first step in a deep dive into potential markets is figuring out where to jump in. A multinational company with serious backing can afford to throw a budget at researching countries or regions around the world. Smaller organizations might instead choose one to trial.

Once you have a destination or cultural group, immerse yourself in it. Low-cost ways of doing so include:

  • consuming radio, TV, books and films from the culture
  • visiting the destination, or spending time in relevant neighborhoods in your own country
  • finding collaborators with expertise in the culture—a search on 99designs can uncover a local designer
  • connecting with wider creative communities by searching for work that inspires you online and reaching out on social networks
  • talking to local suppliers or partners
  • hiring a consultant to take you deeper into the culture and reviewing work in progress

Ideally, research won’t just focus on people, but on how they use a product like yours. Do they use it frequently? Carry it with them? If it’s an app, will they mostly use it on their smartphone, or on a tablet or laptop?

illustration of ideas and brainstorming with a world map as the back drop
Illustration by OrangeCrush

User habits can be very different, as eBay found when they spent big on breaking into China in 2004 and came up against local rival Taobao. While eBay stuck to its familiar template, Taobao did things differently, relying on TV rather than online ads, and including messaging and voice mail functionality on its platform because more Chinese people used cell phones than laptops. Taobao ended up dominating, while eBay made a hasty retreat.

Practical steps to internationalization

As we’ve noted, cross-cultural design is about internationalization (adjusting your product so it can travel between cultures) and localization (creating a different template for each market). Because you only need to do it once, internationalization will tend to be less time-intensive, but there’s still work to do:

  • avoid using icons and images that are culturally specific (mailboxes on posts are instantly recognized in the US, but less seen in the rest of the world)
  • in your text, don’t make assumptions about who readers are, where they’re from, how old they are or whether they remember the same TV shows as you
  • pairing icons with text can aid comprehension
  • watch out for images that might be stereotypical or cause offense: do your models dress in a certain way or have a given ethnicity? Are taboo parts of the body like the soles of feet shown?
  • fonts, too, can be stereotyped: Neuland is a “tribal” cliche, while Fraktur has fascist tones
  • choose colors that do not have negative associations in your main markets
  • if you’ll be translating text, remember to allow extra space in your designs (compare “new” in English with “nuevo” in Spanish and “nouveau” in French)
  • if your copy will be written in customers’ second language, they’ll be helped by clear words and structure—summaries and contents pages can also aid their journey

The line between localization and internationalization is blurred. Your company might internationalize a product while keeping your main market in mind, before moving to a more comprehensive localization program.

Amazon’s Indian platform
Amazon localized its Indian website to make it more accessible and relevant via Twitter

How localization works

Collaboration and research are especially important if you’re localizing your products. As with internationalization, dealing with your assumptions and subconscious biases is a crucial first step. But here, instead of making your design and packaging flexible, so that it can slide without friction into different cultural settings, you use aspects of your destination’s culture and communication preferences to help your products stick.

computer screen with a person coming out of it and different location markers
Cross-cultural design can help your products travel by OrangeCrush

Key considerations include:

  • consider general models such as Hofstede’s and your own research
  • note the cultural differences most relevant to your products and design around them
  • review how customers use your products (or your rivals’) in the destination and aim to meet a need. That might mean changing your whole product or individual components, rejigging your branding and packaging, adjusting your digital platform or reviewing distribution
  • adjust your colors, icons and images to maximize your appeal
  • remember that different layouts are preferred in different destinations: Japanese layouts are generally denser than western ones, while Arabic text’s right-to-left alignment should be reflected in page design
  • tie marketing efforts to local festivals, events and weather
  • test, adjust and test again

The final point is perhaps the most crucial. Cross-cultural design isn’t easy, but if you keep learning lessons your approach will get better and better.

Why cross-cultural design matters

Successful cross-cultural design involves putting your own biases and assumptions to one side, and making a product that can thrive in different cultures. Localization and internationalization can give your brand the best chance of succeeding in different contexts. There’s no one approach to cross-cultural design: instead, research, collaboration and testing will help your brand find the right way forward in our global age.

Need some designs that can be localized and internationalized?
Work with our talented designers to make it happen.