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Tips and Thoughts on Cross-Cultural Global Web Design

on Web Design

The internet is global by its very nature. The second a website is launched online, it’s accessible to anyone from Patagonia to Poland. And a recent development to the way the Web works has been described as one of the most significant changes since the dawn of the modern internet era.

In May, internet regulator Icann enabled a system that now allows full URLs to contain no Latin characters – so this means we’ll start seeing full web addresses (including country code) in Arabic, Chinese, Thai…any number of non-Latin character sets. You can view the official Internationalized Domain Names video from Icann below.

The implications of this are huge. And most people recognize that it probably is about time, given that the internet is supposed to reflect global audiences.

So what does this mean for the millions of web designers of the world? Well, if anything, it should remind you that whilst the internet has traditionally been very Western-centric in terms of content and design, this is fast changing. We’re finally seeing the ‘world’ being put into web.

Indeed, online populations are growing at breathtaking speed across Asia, Africa and Latin America. Asia alone is home to well over a third of the world’s internet population…and three quarters of the Earth’s total population speak no English. With that in mind, the need for businesses to think international is becoming increasingly vital. And that’s where web designers can help.

Flexible Web Design

Even if a website is designed initially for English-speaking audiences, this may change in the future. So having the structure in place to easily adapt a website for other languages and cultures is crucial. And the first golden rule of agile web design lies in Unicode.

Unicode is a standard that has been adopted by all the big players across the computing industry – such as Adobe, Google, Microsoft and Apple – and it’s designed to facilitate consistent text-representation across the world’s numerous writing systems. To date, 90 different scripts – written languages – are covered by Unicode incorporating over a hundred thousand different characters.

Most web developers will be familiar with UTF-8, which is a variable-length character encoding system for Unicode. Crucially, it’s compatible with all the standard browsers and platforms, which is why UTF-8 is a good option for those expanding their website into languages that use non-Latin alphabets, such as Arabic and Chinese. Even German has additional characters to that of the English alphabet – such as ä, ö and ü – which would necessitate a system such as UTF-8.

An important aspect of flexible, cross-cultural web design is to keep the content and design separate.

The length of words can vary significantly from language to language. German, for example, generally use much longer words than English (e.g. Büstenhalter=bra), whilst some Asian languages require much less space on a page than English.

It’s for this reason that keeping content and design separate is so important. Firstly, don’t hard-code widths to elements that contain text – space should be allowed to expand as dictated by the length of text. Cascading style sheets (CSS) ultimately keeps content and design apart, meaning each page doesn’t have to be designed from scratch.

A final point worth mentioning relates to user-input features such as fields or forms: don’t stipulate arbitrary – and unnecessary – character restrictions on the input.

Culture Vultures: Design With the World in Mind

The thing with web design is what appeals to one person may not appeal to the next person: you can’t please everyone. But it’s a designer’s job to ensure their work is appealing to as many people as possible – and that means international audiences too.

Cultural considerations should underpin any web design project where the plan is to appeal to global audiences.

Web design by global minds

So whilst an image of a minimally-clad lady may be acceptable to western markets, more conservative cultures may take a dimmer view of it. Colors too play an important part of a website’s design – but colors can mean different things in different parts of the world.

Pink, for example, is very much a feminine color across much of western society and, indeed, in many parts of Asia such as Eastern India. In Japan, however, pink is a color associated with both genders.

In many parts of western society, red can be used to denote danger, love, passion, excitement…or even Christmas. In Celtic cultures, red can symbolize death and the afterlife, whilst in Russia it may represent communism. In China, red means celebration, good luck and happiness, whilst in India it is symbolic of purity.

Blue is often considered the safest and most positive ‘global’ color, and it has positive connotations ranging from good health and trust (which is why many banks use this color…), to immortality and cleanliness.

The point is, color is an important consideration to make – not just from an aesthetic standpoint, but from a cultural one too.

Data-Rate and Connection Difficulties

The key to successful global web design is to think outside the box – well, think outside the box you’re in. So your environment, beliefs and norms should be cast aside as much as possible to consider the bigger picture.

With that in mind, just because you’ve had super-fast, broadband internet access for years, that doesn’t mean everyone has it – especially in the likes of Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

Indeed, the dawdling-days of dial-up are still very much a reality across many parts of the world in terms of the rate at which data can be uploaded/downloaded. This means fancy Flash animations and other bandwidth-sapping graphics can cause computers to crash and burn.

This doesn’t mean you build text-only websites for the global masses, but it could mean you consider creating two versions of your website – one with bells and whistles, and another HTML-only for those not yet on the super-fast cyber highway.

These are just some of the things that can make your websites more internationally friendly and appealing. The internet is global, so it certainly pays for the web designers and developers of the world to start thinking local.

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