Web designers are a highly creative bunch. Whilst most will probably have a natural eye for what looks good and what doesn’t, experience is everything in the world of web design, and learning is a key part of the process en-route to the top. One of the fundamentals of any design – be it web or print – is that it’s the audience that counts, not you. With that in mind, the one golden rule of thumb web designers should remember when carefully crafting their sites is that the second they’re launched into cyberspace, they’re global.
Anyone from Bangladesh to Birmingham can access your pages, which means you need to design with the world in mind.
Of course, you can’t please everyone. But you can make your site so it’s easy to adapt for other languages/cultures and by thinking global from the start, the act of localizing your website later on becomes a whole lot easier.
Content, content, content...
Visitors won’t keep coming back to you website for a nice layout and appealing color scheme alone. The old adage that ‘content is king’ shouldn’t be forgotten amongst all the bells and whistles of an aesthetically pleasing design.
Having a website in English means that around a quarter of the Earth’s population can read your website (and the vast majority of them will have English only as a second language). So if you’re serious about making international inroads online, the time will probably come when you need to start thinking about converting your content for the global masses.
The world has many different writing systems and scripts, with the likes of Arabic, Greek and Chinese having quite distinct characters in their respective alphabets. Even closer to home, the likes of German uses the ‘Eszett’ symbol (ß) in place of ‘ss’, whilst three German vowels use the Umlaut (ä, ö and ü). These are all classed as separate characters to a, o and u from the English alphabet.
With that mind, the need to use Unicode is imperative if you’re planning to develop your website for other markets. Unicode is a standard numeric representation of characters that can currently be used for over 90 scripts, and has a repertoire of over 100,000 characters.
More specifically, UTF-8 is a variable-length character encoding for Unicode that most programmers will be familiar with. It is the best option when creating websites for international markets, as it allows you to use characters from countless writing systems.
All the standard web design applications facilitate Unicode documents, allowing you to choose the language of your pages and insert appropriate HTML tags within the code.
The color scheme is a key consideration on any website – in fact it may be one of the first things many web designers think about.
But whilst color preference is subjective and you can’t please everyone, colors also have cultural significance and it’s perhaps worth thinking about this before settling on a scheme.
For example, black denotes ‘death’ in many western cultures, but not so in eastern cultures, where white is the signifying color for this.
Similarly, red represents ‘danger’ or ‘passion’ in North America and Western Europe, but it can mean ‘purity’ in India. Furthermore, Orange is often used to represent autumn (fall) or Halloween in many regions around the world, but in Northern Ireland, it holds religious connotations for Protestants.
This doesn’t mean you should build a different website for each of your target markets, it just means it pays to be wary of culture and color.
Graphics and imagery
Okay, this depends on how PC you want to be. A liberally-clothed lady on a website isn’t all that offensive to western audiences, but it may be a major faux-pas if you’re targeting more conservative cultures. So you may want to reconsider having such imagery on your website. The same applies to any potentially divisive graphics, whether it relates to gender, religion, age…anything.
But there is a more practical consideration to be made when thinking about your graphics. Believe it or not, there are still many countries across the world without high-speed internet access, which means fancy Flash animations or other bandwidth-sapping graphics may preclude millions of potential visitors from accessing your pages.
To circumvent this, one option is to have a simple HTML version for those on slower connections, and another version for those lucky enough to have superfast Web access on tap.
Design & layout
You are currently reading this article in a ‘left-to-right’ motion. And if you’re not, you probably aren’t taking in many of the key points.
But not all languages read from left-to-right. Arabic, for example, reads in the opposite direction, which will have repercussions for your website’s navigation if you plan to convert your site for Arabic audiences.
It’s not the end of the world if you have to develop separate templates to cater for other languages, but it will save you a little hassle if your navigation bar is in the same place across all your sites. A horizontal navigation bar will go some way towards aiding this consistency process.
This is just the very basics of creating a cross-cultural website. The key point to remember when designing a website is that it is for international audiences and adopting a global mindset from the outset will stand you in good stead. Good luck!
About the author
Christian Arno is founder of global translation services provider Lingo24, specialists in website localization. With offices on three continents and clients in over sixty countries, Lingo24 achieved a turnover of $6m USD in 2009.