Designing for a Global Audience & Universal Understanding

Written by Wholegrain Team - August 17, 2016

The core purpose of design is to communicate a message visually. And in our time-poor society where people have ever-shrinking attention spans, you need to communicate that message quickly or risk losing a client or being misunderstood.

As if that isn’t difficult enough, many websites need to communicate their messages to a global audience in a meaningful way that cuts through any cultural, linguistic or contextual barriers.

While the basics of design may be universally accepted, there are plenty of other factors to take into consideration for your design to be globally understood.

The Battle to Be Heard

In Search of Lost Time, War and Peace, The Lord of the Rings… In the days before modern technology, the books we read tended to be much longer. While some authors still publish large novels, especially in genres such as fantasy, by and large the books we pick up today are much shorter. It’s also less likely that people just sit down to read a book; often they multi-task by listening to an audiobook while doing the housework or commuting, or dipping in and out of their Kindle while on a journey or in a cafe.

A similar trend can be seen online. In the early days of the internet, people communicated their ideas via long-form blog posts. The arrival of social media saw a reduction in words with platforms such as MySpace and Facebook, before Twitter arrived on the scene, asking us to express our opinions in 140 characters.

We moved into shorthand mode, using compound words, simplified thoughts and introducing visuals and icons in place of text. Today’s kids, so-called ‘generation z’, are growing up with this as the norm. So if you want your message to reach them, the solution is clear: when it comes to text, less is definitely more.

Linguistic Considerations

In recent years, internet usage has grown more in countries where English is not the dominant language, leading to a reduction in the use of English online. Although it’s still the most widely used online language, often those reading it don’t have English as their first language, so we have a responsibility to use simplified language if we want to get our message across clearly.

If you really want to ensure a global reach however, you need to think about translating your website. And this needs to be considered at the design stage to account for different translations. Some languages, such as Korean and Chinese, require much less space on a page than English, whereas others, like German, require significantly more.

Even more flexibility is required in languages that read from right to left, such as Arabic, Hebrew and Urdu, because users will also be scanning pages in a different direction, something Twitter tackled in 2012, which included a complete rethink of some Twitter elements, such as hashtags.

Wordless Messages

In the battle for universal understanding, some websites have moved beyond text to communicate via images and icons. Facebook recently introduced a number of symbols to indicate love, laughter, surprise, sadness and anger, in addition to the widely used like, so users don’t even need to waste time typing a reaction.

Elsewhere, the rise of social media platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat, Vine, and the older but no less relevant YouTube, encourage users to create content out of visuals and sometimes audio, with much less emphasis on the written word.

The old adage – a picture is worth a thousand words – remains true. So making use of images in web design can help to communicate your point quickly and efficiently, and reduce the need for text.

But there are still banana skins to navigate. Imagery considered acceptable in some cultures, is unacceptable or has a completely different meaning in others. For example, skimpily dressed women are frowned upon in conservative Middle Eastern countries, and objects with certain symbolism for us, such as the wise old owl, can have negative connotations elsewhere, with Arab-speaking countries associating the bird with pessimism. Even small gestures can cause offense, with the A-OK gesture having an extremely bad meaning in Brazil.

The Language of Colour

Colour plays an integral part in determining and describing our mood – green with envy, tickled pink, and feeling blue – so it’s little surprise that the colours we choose for web design have an impact on the feel and tone of the site.

But colours can also be a minefield, with different cultures attributing different symbolism to them. Take red for example. In Western cultures, it’s the colour of passion, love, danger and excitement, while in Asia it symbolises long life, good luck, joy, happiness and prosperity. In countries like Russia it suggests communism and revolution, and in some African countries it can mean death and aggression.

White, a symbol of purity, peace and cleanliness in the West, is a symbol of bad luck and mourning in some Asian countries, where it’s traditionally worn at funerals.

And be careful of colours with political associations, such as orange in Ireland.

The Role of Technology

As we design in our modern offices with high-speed internet, it’s easy to forget the role that technology plays worldwide. While an increasing number of people have access to the internet around the world, many of its new users are from continents such as Africa, India and South America where connections can be much slower, so page-loading speed is a prime consideration. Even in the UK, large parts of the country have slow broadband or dial-up connections to contend with.

So while it’s increasingly popular to use images and video to appeal to the time-poor user, large images and graphics are a drain if you’re lacking in bandwidth, and slow-loading sites will drive your impatient users away again. So eliminate any imagery that isn’t essential, and ensure the rest is properly optimised to shave crucial seconds off your page-loading time.

Don’t forget also that an increasing number of people surf on their mobile devices, so if your website isn’t responsive you’re ignoring a large part of your potential audience.

A Global Reach

There can be little doubt that globalisation and the internet has made the world feel a much smaller place. But we shouldn’t confuse that by thinking we’re all the same. You have one chance to make a good first impression, so when designing a site for a global reach or localising a website for different regions, you need to think about much more than merely changing the text. You also need to consider linguistic, cultural and contextual differences if you want to make sure your message doesn’t get lost in translation.

We’ve only scratched the surface for things you need to consider when designing for a global audience. What tips do you have for designing websites that transcend the linguistic and cultural divide? Tell us below…