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Jun 01,2010 Shopify API Ecommerce

Web Design Across Cultures

Website localisation is the way of the future – 78% of all internet users aren’t native English speakers and that number is increasing all the time. This changing of the guard means it’s becoming increasingly necessary for websites to think beyond a purely English-speaking audience when it comes to their online presence.

In fact, the bar is constantly being raised – not long ago a website with ten different language options was considered to be a global website, today you need more than 20 different localised sites to be considered truly ‘global’.

Even if you have no intention of developing localised, fully translated domains for a broad range of target countries, the increasing sophistication of automated online translation tools like Google Translate means that, even if you’re only planning to use English on your site, it’s now reasonably understandable and accessible for speakers of other languages.

In this environment, the imperative is there to design websites that are attractive to a multicultural and multilingual audience, and research has proven that not all web users are alike in tastes and attitudes.

If you’re looking for a template on which to base your site design, it’s a good idea to take a look at the tried and tested designs of successful international and multicultural sites, like Google, Facebook and YouTube – simple, straightforward designs that adapt easily to changing scripts.

Here are a few other cross cultural design elements worth taking into account:


If you’re planning to switch the language between localised sites, you’ll need a text encoder that covers the scripts for a variety of languages, to save you from having to rebuild every site from scratch for each new script. Fortunately Unicode UTF-8 covers every character in 90 languages, which should be more than sufficient for your needs, whether your website language is going to be English, Arabic, Simplified Chinese or Pashto.


Speaking of different scripts, one major design element to take into account with websites that need to be adaptable for different languages is the switch between left-to-right languages and right-to-left languages, such as Arabic and Hebrew. You don’t want to have to move your text and image boxes from one side to the other for every page on your site when you’re moving to a right-to-left language, so by keeping your site design symmetrical and utilising a horizontal rather than vertical navigation bar you can change the language direction without creating any extra work.


The connotations of different colours vary greatly between different cultures, as this colour wheel shows. It makes no sense to be switching your colour scheme between different localised sites – you want consistency in your branding after all – so it’s a good idea to decide on a colour scheme that’s generally inoffensive and representative of your brand across a range of cultures before you start designing your site. One thing everyone likes: dark text on a light background – no one finds it easy to read white text on a black, green or blue background, no matter what culture they come from.


When it comes to your site’s imagery, there’s just one simple rule – try not to offend anyone. This takes two paths – firstly, try to avoid general imagery that could be considered offensive to conservative viewers (unless you’re selling bikinis, you probably don’t need a swimwear model on the front page of your site), and secondly, make sure your promotional images are relevant to their intended audience – your Chinese audience is not going to engage with your brand if all the photos on your site are of white people using and enjoying your product.


The same goes for your content – if you’re creating individual localised sites then make sure you have your copy written with the target market in mind, with specific cultural references to appeal to the US/Indian/Chinese market, etc. On the other hand, if you’re just designing a single site, but with the intention of it being accessible via Google Translate to a multicultural audience, then it’s best to keep your text as general as possible and avoid specific cultural references and colloquialisms – the translation bots and your readers are far more likely to understand the word ‘food’ than ‘grub’, ‘munchies’ or ‘tucker’.

Take these basic elements into account before you sit down to design your site and you can dramatically increase your website’s accessibility to viewers across language and cultural divides, sending your potential online audience from the native English speaking 22% of web surfers to anyone and everyone with a computer and a modem.

About the author

Christian Arno founded localisation and translation agency Lingo24 in 2001, and today the company works with clients in more than sixty countries, with a projected turnover for 2010 of £6.3m.