Intercultural Design Competence (part 2/3)

One concern many designers have is that misinterprations of their designs occur by people from other cultures. There are three common approaches to intercultural graphic design:

1) Graphic designers attempt to translate their own visual language into another culture’s visual language. This becomes more and more outdated because the same idea is often translated into multiple languages. But „many ideas do not clearly translate from one culture to another. Visual language, just like verbal language, has a specific grammatical structure. Whereas verbal language cannot be translated word for word, visual language cannot be translated image by image“ the article states.

2) Graphic designers focus on transforming their ideas rather than translating. They apply images or ideas only because of aesthetic reasons without really understanding them and copy specific styles of design. A designer should go further and rather „understand the images and ideas of different cultures, and then merge these with their own cultural knowledge to create an entirely new visual message.“ The article suggests the designer to be a chameleon and reflect local color but retain their form.

3) Graphic designers gain an understanding of the audience’s culture, because they want to avoid offending the audience. It’s important to not only avoid offending but to connect and look deeper.

The article suggests a fourth approach: Intercultural Design Competence. It proposes that successful intercultural graphic designers need to have:

  1. motivation to be culturally-sensitive
  2. design and research skills
  3. appropriate cultural knowledge

Designers can then „incorporate the local visual languages of their own audience in to their designs as a sign of understanding and respect. The more intercultural experiences a designer has, the more his or her motivation, skills, and knowledge will expand.“

Figure 1: Components of Intercultural Design Competence. Source: Image by McMullen

1. motivation to be culturally-sensitive

What graphic designers need to observe is the cultural diversity of the world. Many have ethnocentric tendencies wich mean „that we hold views and standards that are ‚own group/centric‘ and make judgements about other groups based on our own group’s values and beliefs“ (Ting-Toomey 1999). Designers need to get rid of this behavior and be aware of their own cultural assumptions and biases. There is a connection between the motivation to be culturally-sensitive into visual communication and personal experiences. „By recognizing that they were different from mainstream culture, they learned that not everyone perceives the world identically“. A majority of designers doing intercultural design have diverse cultural backgrounds and/or  experienced different lifestyles and traditions through traveling or working outside their home country.

2. design and research skills

To successfully convey their message, intercultural graphic designers need to have skills in design, research and communication. Additionally, they need to be able to rethink their design process and have interdisciplinary knowledge of related fields and approaches. One of the interview partners suggested to study the work of Edward T. Hall, Richard Lewis, Geert Hofstede, Fons Trompenaars, Jussi V. Koivisto, and Clifford Geertz. Many graphic designers only have little formal education in intercultural design. „Designers need to seek out interdisciplinary work on their own because the cultural understanding they need is notably absent from most design literature.“ Therefore, designers need to be independent critical thinkers and ask the right questions.

3. appropriate cultural knowledge

The challenge is where to begin cultural research. There are two research proposes within intercultural verbal communication:

  • comparison of cultural differences
  • emphasis on relations of power between different cultural groups

For intercultural designers, the first approach is not enough. They need to have an in-depth understanding of the culture they design for. They should avoid using broad labels like „Western“ or „Eastern“ and consider the social, historical and political context of their audience.

Here are a few suggestions of how a designer can get cultural knowledge:

  • reading books and online postings
  • looking at online images

As the article states that there was only little information about a cultural research for graphic designers in the literature, more methods could be gathered from the conducted interviews:

  • travel (was most frequently mentioned). One designer mentioned that he thinks designers need to understand the culture on a personal level to be able to design for it at all.
  • visually observe the cultures and take pictures. Photography makes it possible to find inspiration even later on.
  • interview members of that cultural group. Designers need to ask a lot of questions and not be afraid of it. Two of the most important ones are „What am I doing?“ and „Why am I doing it?“
  • maintain an open and accepting mind. They must be empathetic and adaptable and avoid biases and disrespect for other cultures. One of the interviewed designers said that it’s important „not to choose between different cultures but to instead recognize the value that all cultures have.“

I think this impressive quote is a good point to end this blogpost. You can see from the way how detailed I describe this article and make sure to summarize it in a way that the most important statements don’t get lost, that I’m very passionate about it. Culture has such a big impact on our lives and yet, often we don’t recognize how much our mindset is actually shaped because of it. For us as human beings, having a broadened horizon and connection to people from other cultures is crucial in order to avoid exclusion and hate against other cultures. Only when we get in contact with people from other places of the world, we identify how limited we are with our concerns, beliefs, etc. and realize that we are just a tiny, tiny little piece of this wonderful mosaic called world. The potential to learn and grow through the connections with people from other different backgrounds is huge. We just need to be brave and encounter each other with an open mind and heart.