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How Does Culture Impact Design?

Ravi Rajan is a program director working in India. He writes articles on management, creativity, and creating user-centric design philosophy

Culture is important and cross-cultural design indisputably presents complex challenges.

Culture is important and cross-cultural design indisputably presents complex challenges.

How Do You Define Culture?

Culture certainly matters if a business wants to expand globally and must now design websites, products, or services that will provide an appealing and pleasant design to the citizens of a non-native country.

That said, there are many goof-ups in design which have been only due to a lack of understanding of culture. For example, take Chevrolet’s “Nova,” which failed in Latin America. As the story goes, the branding failed because “Nova” means “no go” in Spanish.

The same thing happened in India when Amazon launched its services in India. In late 2018, Amazon faced a serious problem caused due to the need for comprehensive design research. They needed help figuring out why customers in India were not using the search feature for products to buy on the mobile site's homepage.

It turned out that the magnifying glass icon was not something people associated with search in India. It made no sense in the Indian context as people thought the icon represented a ping-pong paddle. Finally, as a solution, Amazon kept the magnifying glass but added a search field with a Hindi text label to let people know this was where they could initiate a search. This approach worked as expected.

That brings us to an important question. How do you define culture?

Scholars have never been able to agree on a simple definition of culture. In the 1870s, the anthropologist Edward Taylor defined culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and other capabilities acquired by man as a member of society. “

Geert Hofstede, an expert in cross-cultural differences and management, defined culture as “the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one human group from another. “

Hofstede carried out a study in the 1960s and 1970s in which he used the information provided by more than 1 16,000 questionnaires, filled by IBM employees spread across 70 different countries regarding their attitudes and values.

Based on his study, he claimed that different cultures could be classified with the help of four cultural dimensions-

  1. Power distance
  2. Individualism versus collectivism
  3. Uncertainty avoidance
  4. Masculinity versus femininity

Let us look at each of Hofstede's dimensions and their implications for design to make it culturally relevant.

1. Power Distance

High-power distance countries are more autocratic. Low power distance countries are more democratic.

This dimension describes the relationships between the superior and the subordinates. In high power distance societies, there is little or no interaction between the superior and the subordinates, and the latter is expected to carry out the orders without question. There is a clear demarcation of roles, and access control is strongly enforced in place.

In low power distance societies, there is a lot of interaction between the superiors and the subordinates, and subordinates carry out their superiors' orders if they are satisfied.

Impact on Design

High power distance countries strongly focus on authority, roles, and formal hierarchy. So visuals showing authority with detailed guidelines work well in such countries. Low-distance countries are informal, so vibrant images visuals of daily life and fun, and recreation are much appreciated in such countries.

High power distance cultures prefer products with clearly defined role-based access to information. Users are only allowed to see what they are authorized to see and have limited options to access additional information.

Lower power distance cultures are open with an informal flow of information. The product and sites must be designed to encourage exploration.

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2. Individualism Versus Collectivism

In their article “Cultural Dimensions and Global Web User-Interface Design,” authors Marcus and Gould argue that motivation is based on personal achievement in individualistic cultures. At the same time, collectivist societies value harmony and consensus to move forward.

People are more concerned about themselves and their near and dear ones in individualistic societies. In such communities, greater emphasis is on individual freedom, initiative, achievement, and recognition. In such societies, relationships are primarily professional.

Collectivism is the opposite of individualism. In such societies, greater emphasis is on group identity, affiliation, achievement, and recognition. Strong emotional relationships exist among individuals in such communities, and loyalty is highly valued.

Impact on Design

Languages, sounds, metaphors, and videos that score high on individualistic success do well in individualistic cultures. Young and trendy images and cool-looking products are much appreciated and vied after. In collectivist countries, the focus is on harmony and experience, so products favoring deep research backed by solid data and years of experience are preferred in such countries.

Jazzy websites offering discounts, rewards, and chargebacks are favored in individualistic countries. UX designs emphasizing youth's glory and success are very hot in demand.

Whereas simplistic design committed to a profound social cause, harmony and promoting unity among diversity are favored in collectivist countries. Collectivist countries prefer designs displaying wisdom, experience, and collective societal goals.

3. Uncertainty Avoidance

Uncertainty avoidance refers to the degree of tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity.

This dimension tells us to what extent people in a society are ready to accept ambiguous situations and uncertainties. In communities with a high uncertainty avoidance culture, people tend to develop formal rules and regulations that specify the standard operating procedures to be followed in every situation.

In low uncertainty avoidance societies, people are not afraid of ambiguity and uncertainty and are willing to take risks and venture into the unknown. High uncertainty avoidance cultures control changes with rules, laws, and regulations. Low uncertainty avoidance cultures are more pragmatic and have as few rules as possible.

Impact on Design

High UA cultures favor clear, no-nonsense designs that give exactly what is expected. The focus is on simplicity and robustness, and ambiguity is strongly discouraged. Redundant cues in color and typography that increase vagueness are not acceptable in high UA cultures.

On the other hand, low UA cultures favor multiple options, unique buttons, and out-of-the-box offerings that go beyond the conventional run-of-the-mill affairs.

High UA cultures expect clear and consistent messaging across all channels with a focus on appropriate information and credibility and content based on practical value.

In comparison, low UA countries expect design to be visually appealing, colorful, and focused on small but immediate gratification in every action done by the user. Low UA cultures will value more general and symbolic messages with less detail.

4. Masculinity vs. Femininity

Masculine cultures are competitive, assertive, and materialistic. Feminine cultures place more value on relationships and quality of life.

In societies emphasizing masculinity, the dominating values are success, money, and fame. In such communities, people want to be the best and have no sympathy for the losers. The sex roles are sharply distinguished, and there is a differentiation between males and females in the same job.

In societies where feminine culture prevails, the dominating values are caring for others and quality of life. People place greater importance on cooperation and a friendly working environment. In such societies, differentiation is not made between males and females in the same job.

Impact on Design

Websites encouraging social get-togethers, activities, and family bonding are appreciated in feminine countries. In contrast, masculine countries favor designs with a powerful and decisive theme, bold colors, and an evident appreciation of success, winners, and world-beaters.

While softer colors and feminine icons and metaphors are appreciated in feminine countries, dark, solid colors and a deep emphasis on personal gratification are appreciated in masculine countries.

A user-centered design requires empathy to understand not only their cultures but also their overall background.

A user-centered design requires empathy to understand not only their cultures but also their overall background.

Concluding Thoughts

A user-centered design requires empathy to understand not only their cultures but also their overall background.

Cross-cultural design indisputably presents complex challenges—both linguistic and cultural. Often designers make the mistake of assuming cross-cultural designs to be merely language additions, font changes, switching currencies, or updating a few images to represent the local culture.

But the fact is that culture transcends boundaries that are far more personal and intricate and varies considerably across countries. That is why cross-cultural design is also called “Persona-Centred Design.” The road to successful cross-cultural design is complicated, and detailed cultural study is required to get the design right across boundaries.

Designing for international markets can take time and effort. But, with research and usability testing, we can design better experiences, bypass our cultural nuances and create a truly global product. A good design is all about putting the user first. Any aspect of a website, app, or software that does not consider the user’s needs is ultimately doomed to fail.

As Richard Driehaus has rightly said.

“Good design doesn't cost, but it pays."


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Ravi Rajan

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