Culture Shock: Do Your Research Before You Design

Guest
March 26, 2009

Living in America, the melting pot, we have the privilege of experiencing many different kinds of culture through our neighbors. As a designer I’ve drawn inspiration for many designs through other cultures. Just look around in your area and you can see how we’ve adopted certain looks for things based on different cultures. When you hear the word “spa,” for example, you think of a certain environment and feel. Take a moment to really look at it and you will find spas take their design cues from Asian culture; some may associate it with the word “Zen.” As a graphic designer you may get an international clientele, and some may want to incorporate their culture into their designed pieces. As a designer it is your duty to make sure you represent these cultures in a way that will not offend them. Be sure to ask your client about the history and symbolism behind different cultural design elements. It is part of their culture so they may not think to tell you ways in which different elements should not be presented so remember to ask them. A friend of mine, who had married a woman of Chinese decent, received a wedding gift of handmade pottery that had been personalized with the symbol for double happiness; the only problem was the symbol was upside down. If the artist had done their research they would have put it right side up. Sometimes it’s not always the representation of symbols but the use of color in cultures that is crucial. For some cultures black is a color of celebration and white a color of mourning. I’ll give you an example: The same friend, in preparation for his wedding, wanted me to design a program with the symbol of double happiness on the top of it. I did put the symbol right side up, but that wasn’t the issue. To save cost he said to make the whole thing black, and they would reproduce it on a copy machine. The soon-to-be mother-in-law saw the programs before the wedding and said they could not use them. As it turns out, the symbol for double happiness should never be black, because it is bad luck. Red is the color it needed to be to bring good luck. It can be difficult to find accurate information online about some cultures concerning customs and what they consider good and bad luck. There is a solution for this: The library. You know the place we used to go to for information before the Internet? It’s also free of charge. You could also try contacting a cultural organization in your area. Take their PR agent out for coffee and consider bringing some design ideas so they can take a look at them for any cultural errors or unintended bad luck. In most cases your client will give you all the information you will need for your cultural design; however, be ready to do the research just in case you have a client that is trying to impress a potential international client themselves. They will thank you after they land the account because you made sure the double happiness was upright and red.

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