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…

characters

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.

Color considerations

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.

colors

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

lingo24

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.

Finally…

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.

91 Comments

Adeel Ejaz
Jun 17, 2010 at 10:38 am

Great article! We launched our websites in 12 countries and were suffering for huge bounce rates. The way we tackled this issue was by using a minimalistic design. Something that is enough to get the brand across but not so much to affect the look of the website. Much like facebook or YouTube pull it off. The only branding the website is the top logo and the nav bar. Everything else is pretty standard.

Jen
Jun 17, 2010 at 10:41 am

Very helpful. One thing to add: please avoid using flags to represent language. Using the Spanish flag to represent the Spanish language can be confusing or insulting. I know there are dialect differences, but the implications of offending someone with the flag are far greater. Just make a note on the page or in the document regarding the dialect or region.

Sascha Postner
Jun 17, 2010 at 2:57 pm

Intersting thoughts and information. I once wrote a paper on cultural conciderations in web design during my studies in Sweden.
Although no many people were thinking about this stuff at that time we found some pretty strong relations between user experience and cultural heritage/nationality. Cultural optimization seems to be one of the key-areas of improvment for international web sites.

yosh
Jun 17, 2010 at 3:00 pm

I’ve been working on multi-lingual websites for the past couple of years, (One of those supporting more then 30 languages) and found very little information on this issue when I started, so this article is a very good starting point.
If I may, I’d like to share a couple more tips, from my experience:
1. Content:
Never assume that content will have the same dimensions in different languages. In fact, the sizes/lengths can vary dramatically. This might create a huge problem when the design involves horizontal elements (like a horizontal menu) or horizontal alignment of elements.
2. Fonts:
When dealing with fonts, encoding to UTF-8 is not enough. Surprisingly (or not) not all commonly-used fonts support characters that are not Latin. It is very important, then, to specify different font-families, and of course to have the option to degrade to the browser’s default font type (serif/sans-serif).
Another issue with fonts is the fact that Non-Latin fonts may not have the same height as their Latin counterparts (or numbers).
3. Right-to-Left (RTL) Interface
It might be good craftsmanship to keep a unified design all over the site, but keep in mind that RTL languages have the same reading conventions as Left to Right languages (just opposite…) and the users of these languages want the website to respect their reading conventions. So the site might need to have it’s design “mirrored” to RTL.
A good way of doing this, it giving RTL different CSS files. Using a web service like “CSS Janus” might help you convert the styles. Still some manual labor will be needed, especially on non-symmetrical graphics.
4. Browsers
Different countries have their own browsing habits. Do not rely only on North American/Western European statistics: Asia and Africa use more of Internet Explorer (and the earlier versions!) then we want to consider. The same goes for Eastern European countries. This combined with slower internet services, means that multi-lingual sites cannot always work with the latest complexities (like CSS3 for example). You might decide to degrade your site’s user experience (gracefully!) for “The challenged”, but make sure that they are not the majority of your users…
Last but not least: Browser Bugs
We found that ALL browsers have bugs when dealing with RTL content. Naturally, IE’s have more bugs (and remember IE6’s market-share in Asia…), but the others have some as well. You WILL work hard to make your website look good on all browsers and in all languages – but the outcome is gratifying.

Good luck.

milan
Jun 17, 2010 at 3:28 pm

great info thx

Tanya
Jun 17, 2010 at 3:43 pm

Great article. and thanx yosh you add some really useful info to the article.

Anita
Jun 17, 2010 at 10:45 pm

I agree about the problems with using flags to represent languages – even English. Your choice of flag says more about you (did you use the UK or US flag?) than about me (I’m Australian).
Perhaps a designer’s best option for deaing with other cultures is consultation with representatives of those cultures/countries/languages that will be important to them.
Finally, you used the phrase “liberally-clothed” in the main text. To me “liberally” in this context means “generously” – i.e. with lots of clothing – rather than what I think you meant: with little clothing or scantily-clad.

Ahmed
Jun 18, 2010 at 4:15 am

Nice Article – An article on the same topic was posted on Web Designer Online – http://www.webdesigneronline.co.uk/web-design-across-cultures-9-advices

Jordan Walker
Jun 18, 2010 at 8:01 am

Nice write up, and very thought provoking.

Ted Thompson
Jun 18, 2010 at 8:28 am

Interesting article, some interesting points. Thanks for sharing!

colormist
Jun 18, 2010 at 1:27 pm

Seconding Anita’s comment. Liberally-clothed in this context means “lots of clothing on”. Maybe minimally, skimpily, or partially clothed is a better turn of phrase.

Rebecca
Jun 18, 2010 at 1:39 pm

Good article. Over the years companies and individuals have made a lot of mistakes in marketing because they did not consider different cultures. Even between British and American English there are words that have different meanings which can lead to some unfortunate mistakes.

Eric
Jun 18, 2010 at 5:12 pm

Great article.

web design philippines
Jun 19, 2010 at 7:39 pm

wow! i never expected that! i’ve been a web designer for almost all my life, and the thing that i always do is keep in mind the market that i’m aiming for, like if it is for the kids or for adults.. but not the cultural thing like you said… and yes, every culture of every country has their own preference, such as the use of colors in our website and, well, the language of course… thx for this very informative article! i’ll be coming back for more if you have more tips on these kinds of things! thx again! ^_^

Jeremiah
Jun 21, 2010 at 3:47 am

Awesome post!! Keep it coming.

Pablo
Jun 21, 2010 at 3:50 am

@Anita and @Colormist – I think liberally-clothed is about right here, though I do see your point. Conservatively-clothed would mean someone who’s not showing a great deal of flesh or who is otherwise uncontroversially clothed, liberal therefore would be the opposite of that – basically free, open and not bound by convention. So that could mean not a lot on, or going by your interpretation it could also mean a generous helping of garments.

PsdDude
Jun 21, 2010 at 7:29 am

Interesting article! You have a really good point!

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Jun 22, 2010 at 4:49 am

Seconding Anita’s comment. Liberally-clothed in this context means “lots of clothing on”. Maybe minimally, skimpily, or partially clothed is a better turn of phrase.

louis vuitton
Jun 22, 2010 at 4:49 am

Seconding Anita’s comment. Liberally-clothed in this context means “lots of clothing on”. Maybe minimally, skimpily, Louis Vuittonor partially clothed is a better turn of phrase.

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Jun 22, 2010 at 10:38 am

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Jun 22, 2010 at 12:58 pm

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Jun 22, 2010 at 11:27 pm

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Jun 24, 2010 at 11:11 am

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DSM Design
Jun 25, 2010 at 5:46 am

Really great post, great read! Keep up the good work! :)

Bhargavi
Jun 25, 2010 at 8:21 am

I agree this is good stuff to keep in mind. Thanks.

As to the “liberally-clothed” debate:-) – #16, #18 and @anita, liberal style of dressing would probably convey the author’s meaning more!

Saskatoon Web Design - Jared
Jun 27, 2010 at 11:33 am

Very nice read, thanks. Most of our clients are local, but soon we have a few international potentials, I’ll pass this on to our designers for sure.

ndrew
Jun 27, 2010 at 11:59 am

yeps, we have to take user attention with the interface first but don’t forget to enrich the content. Give what user need..

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Jun 29, 2010 at 5:03 pm

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Web Design Dispatch
Jul 3, 2010 at 4:22 pm

I think this is a great post its about time websites start becoming much more accessible to other languages.

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Jul 7, 2010 at 10:34 pm

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Jul 9, 2010 at 2:11 pm

Good read. I would be interested to know what is your CMS of choice when working or building a multilingual site? Would you go for a custom platform or do you think WP, Drupal and others have what it takes?

Freddy
Jul 9, 2010 at 3:28 pm

A thoroughly good read, I especially liked the thoughts on design. Too many designers today try to push their own limited design skills and discard the views of their customers who very often have a different perspective or direction that they would like to pursue. Once again – great article.

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Jul 10, 2010 at 7:58 pm

I loved this post! A cheeky wee comment… I loved seeing Gáidhlig in that picture! A Gaeilge speaker (Irish Gaelic’s Scottish Gaelic’s sister!). Ádh mór oraibh! [=

Ps, orange doesn’t hold religious connotations in northern Ireland, but cultural ones (The Orange Order for example). On the Irish tricolour, green is for Nationalists, orange for Unionists and the white in between for ‘peace’. [=

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I teach writing at the college level, and one of the things I discuss with my students is the importance of traditional color associations in their descriptive writing. I bring up the aspect of different cultural associations of color. For instance, the color white in traditional Korean culture is similar to western culture’s associations when it comes to the color a bride’s dress should be, but a white chrysanthemum represents death. This post brings to light an often overlooked issue in web design. Very enlightening.

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