Translating success: why cross-cultural design matters

translating success: why cross-cultural design matters

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?
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.
There are several overlapping approaches to designing for a varied world:
No single approach offers a silver bullet. Instead, different companies will need to pick and choose based on their size, strategy and products.
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.”
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.
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:
Other categories discussed include how much emotions are expressed, to what extent work and personal lives are kept separate, and how important rules are.
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.
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:
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?
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.
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:
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.
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.
Key considerations include:
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.
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.



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Our newsletter is for everyone who loves design! Let us know if you’re a freelance designer (or not) so we can share the most relevant content for you.
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