Culture is one of the most complex words in the English vocabulary which not only elaborate over time but also has numerous definitions. Culture also define how design is perceived and the culture of a target audience, therefore, always need to be accounted for in a commercial campaign.
The word ‘culture’, historically, have been equated with the classic arts, literature, philosophy, and music, expressed by eighteenth-century philosopher Matthew Arnold as “the best that has been thought and said” (Arnold, 1932). Within this definition, the Mona Lisa by Leonardo or a composition by Beethoven can be said to represent the epitome of culture.
But culture also has an anthropological definition which refers to the shared practices and values of a society or a group of people which also is the way the term is used in this text. Within the anthropological discourse, culture is created through intricate structures of language, gestures, acting and looking, and is represented through the actions which individuals use to make sense of reality and their identities (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009, p. 3). In simpler terms, ‘culture’ within this discourse can be defined as any group of people who are able to express thoughts, feelings, and ideas about the world in ways which can be understood by everyone else in that particular group (Hall, Evans and Nixon, 2013, p. xix).
Within the anthropological definition of culture, objects in themselves do not have a single, fixed meaning and even something obvious as a stone can be defined as anything from a hammer, a sculpture or a building block for a house depending on how the term ‘stone’ is used, where it is found, how you integrate with it and what people say about it. “Meaning” within the anthropological, cultural discourse is constructed by the participants of a culture in the way objects, people and events are “represented” by the words used to describe them, images produced to present them, associated emotions, placed value and how they are conceptualised and classified (Hall, 1973).
As an example; consider the colour white which in most western cultures is associated with purity. In Japan, however, white represents death (Chau et al., 2002). Or consider how you perceive American Apparels advert for fair-labor practices in Figure 1, below. Do you think the way it is designed is just a fair trick to get attention in a crowded marketplace, or do you find it offensive and making you reluctant to buy any products from this company? As these examples clearly show images or designs pleasing to one group of people may seriously offend many others.
But the disparities between cultures not only is manifested by preferences on what is appropriate, acceptable or attractive. Research by Hofstede and Hofstede (2005) shows that members of different cultures also have divergent mental models of what is considered as complex or legible in a design structure and what one culture might perceive as legible and easy to understand another culture may find complex and confusing.
And herein lays the inherent problem with cross-cultural design. Great design will never fit the taste of every audience and culture, and designers and companies trying to perfectly match the preferences of all audiences and cultures simply are doomed to fail. Exceptional design is not a design that fits everyone’s taste but one that perfectly match the needs and preferences of the culture for which it is created.
- Arnold, M. (1932). Culture and Anarchy. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p.6.
- Chau, P., Cole, M., Massey, A., Montoya-Weiss, M. and O’Keefe, R. (2002). Cultural differences in the online behavior of consumers. Communications of the ACM, 45(10), pp.138-143.
- Fowler, F., Fowler, H. and Thompson, D. (2000). The pocket Oxford dictionary of current English. 1st ed. Oxford [England]: Oxford University Press.
- Hall, S. (1973). Encoding and decoding in the television discourse Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. 1st ed. [Place of publication not identified]: University of Birmingham.
- Hall, S., Evans, J. and Nixon, S. (2013). Representation. 1st ed. London: Sage Publications.
- Hofstede, G. and Hofstede, J. (2005). Cultures and organizations. 1st ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Marcus, A. and Gould, E. (2000). Crosscurrents: cultural dimensions and global Web user-interface design. interactions, 7(4), pp.32-46.
- Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009). Practices of looking. 1st ed. New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, p.3.
- Williams, R. (1983). Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. 1st ed. Oxford University Press, p.87.