culture and design – why you should care

In an evermore globalised world, the role of the designer seems quite straightforward: “Of course the work I do in Norway will be applicable in South Africa or Japan!” However, the world is beauti­fully nuanced with regard to culture, ­symbolism, and deeper meaning, and oftentimes simply google translating a text, and gluing it into a pre-made layout is not enough. You need to consider and understand how different people around the world communicate amongst themselves, and across cultures. And consider the implication culture has on how an individual interprets the meaning of your design.

Clearly we could simply look for universal signs and symbols, no? Nobody would mistake a thumbs up for anything other than an “ok” right? Wrong. While this is widely known as the symbol for ok, in some countries, giving somebody a thumbs up literarily means “up yours.” Same goes for the “victory sign”, shaping your index and middle finger into a V—in some countries this too literarily means “up yours”.

Ok, so maybe we need to reconsider hand gestures. But what does this have to do with design?

This is simply an example of how differently the same things can appear to different people. Different colours may have different appeal to people depending on their cultural background, and people may even interpret picto­grams and signs differently. This might also challenge peoples taste in typography, and while you might find your design beautiful and easily comprehensible, others might not. Even a word that looks or sounds the same in languages that are related to each other may have very different meaning. Take the phrase “min rare lille tøs” for example. In Swedish this means “my sweet little girl” but in Norwegian (another Germanic language) it means “my strange little slut”. This could make your life quite ­awkward, no?

So what is the point? Well it is to stress the importance of familiarising yourself with your audience. As a designer, you need to ask yourself: How will your target audience react  to and interact with your design? Do you need to ­familiarise yourself with a different culture in order to produce a good design? Or is your design so ­universal that it will be understandable anywhere? Will your choice of colours or patterns have an effect on how people interpret your design? Can you appropriate a different culture into your design, despite coming from another background in order to make it more appealing to the ­target audience? What language will you present in? Will the length of a text change if you translate it, and how will this affect the way you place it?

Not only that: Have you ever thought of the effect ­design has on culture, and the effect culture has on people? While it may be easy to argue that humankind has evolved through genetics over time, it is difficult to claim that we have not also evolved with culture, and that our culture has had a profound effect on the world we live in.

Think about this: What did the world look like before the printing press of the Industrial age? What did society look like? Both have drastically changed, and this is due to human design. Unfortunately we are live in a world where wildlife is severely affected by us, and the environment is suffering, but we need to remember, since our design can have such a profound negative effect on the environment, we are also more than capable of affecting it ­positively. This is probably the most important challenge facing the designer today: How can we use design to change our ­culture, and change the world we live in, into a more ­sustainable and inclusive world?