World Map

Designing For An International Audience


Reaching global audiences

The more I travel, the more I realize there are few things in this world that can be universally translated. "Hello!" works everywhere, that’s a given. Smiles are safely accepted world wide, or at least, in the places on my personal bucket list. And luckily, the word "coffee" or anything sonically resembling it will result in a cup of joe. Currently, I’m sitting in the garden of an art hostel in Sofia, Bulgaria, sipping said cup of joe.

Being the design junkie that I am, I always take note of signs, flyers, posters, ads and local magazines and realized graphic design aesthetics differ from culture to culture.

Initially, I sketched this post as a comparison of visual design among the varying cultures, but then I thought – how does this effect web design? We have the technology to sniff users’ locations and dish up localized sites, but a better approach would be to find a common ground that works across borders: technically, aesthetically and otherwise.


So first, let’s talk about visuals, then we’ll move on to the technical specs that help make your website a little more global friendly.

Design is a reflection of history and culture

Latin America uses colorful and energetic shapes, funky typography, often incorporating religious and nationalist themes. Their celebration for life is obvious through contrasting color and bold designs, resulting in a party-like aesthetic.

China is a delicate mixture of feng shui, historical symbols and calligraphy with red always being the primary color. In 1979, they opened their door to the outside world and its new ideas in marketing and design, so it’s a mixture of age-old traditional symbols and new-age methods and technology.

Japan is very modern and urban using heaps of neon colors (inspired by their iconic downtown Tokyo nightlife, perhaps?) Cutesy characters, anime and manga mixed with sleek and futuristic elements. Their style has hugely influenced the West.

Middle Eastern design are laden with calligraphy and repetitive patterns, using rich colors and gold accents. Minimalist yet intricate. Graphic design is a new concept in the Middle East, and "freelancing" hasn’t caught on yet.

Scandinavian design is the crème de la crème of aesthetics. Their use of minimalism is above and beyond anything I’ve seen elsewhere, yet still incorporating a playful style.


cultural color palette

Choose wisely, young padawan…

The subject of global color psychology could be a blog post of its own. It may not be possible to find a color palette that will hold the same meaning across borders, but it’s worth doing the research in your target markets.

For example, on a dashboard widget in Western countries, green means great, red means danger. In China, those colors are reversed and have the exact opposite meaning because culturally, red is a sign of happiness and well being. White is typically a sign of purity, clarity and innocence, but again, in Asian cultures, it symbolizes death and mourning.

Studies have shown blue to be the least offensive color for international audiences, which explains why so many websites use "corporate blue."

Again, it’s not easy to please every demographic, so it’s a good idea to check your key target locations so as not to project the wrong message.


Watch your language. Be clear. Be concise. Avoid slang because it never translates as accurately as one would hope. When in doubt, run the copy by a native speaker. Online translators are a great start, and a nice way to get the general idea, but when you’re professionally presenting your product or service you want your message to come across clearly.

On a side note, when choosing an international brand name, don’t make the same embarrassing mistake as Chevrolet when they named their Nova. In Spanish, that directly translates as "no go" which, needless to say, earned quite a few chuckles.

As for the Russian translation of Kraft’s global snack line "Mondelez" – well, I’ll let you research that one on your own. 😉

Technically speaking…

In addition to design and content considerations, there are a few things we can do under the hood to make a website more global friendly.


First and foremost: Unicode, Unicode, Unicode!

It’s the computing industry standard for the consistent encoding and handling of text across most languages. In other words, it’s the "Universal Alphabet" with over a million characters supporting a majority of writing systems and languages. The most commonly used is UTF-8, which is a variable-width encoding representing every character in the unicode character set.

Include the charset meta tag in the document head so the browser knows to use the Unicode character set.

<meta charset="utf-8">


except when it’s not

Seeing a site’s navigation meticulously organized in the left side bar has become a norm for us in the Western world (even though most of us are right handed, which always seemed counter-ergonomic to me, but I digress…) So what about languages that read right-to-left? or Japanese, which reads top to bottom?

Of course, you can switch the text direction as shown below, but altering your design to use a universal approach may be more optimal.

<html dir="rtl">

You may have noticed a recent influx of sites with a centered, symmetrical, horizontal top nav bar. It’s not only an aesthetic trend, which works well on mobile sites, but also a work-around to allow text to freely flow in both directions.

Right-to-left readers also view before and after pictures the same way, so be sure to flip those if you plan to cater to Arabic or Hebrew audiences.

Flexible design

long german wordsIf you’ve ever had to localize a site for the German language, then you’ve already learned to allow for super crazy long words. On average, German text is 30% longer than its English translation. On the contrary, Asian languages may have one or two characters to represent a lengthy English word.

As a web designer, it’s a struggle to design for both scenarios, so again, cater to your targeted market, but most importantly, allow your design template to have the flexibility to display varying text lengths without breaking.

On your mark. Get Set. Load!

Not everyone is on a zippy connection. In fact, parts of South America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East are still on dial-up! gasp Keeping this in mind, go easy on the large graphics, videos and large files. You could also provide a link to a text-only or barebones version of your site. This is also good practice for developing mobile sites since many are on a pay-as-you-go data plan. The faster your site loads, the sooner they can dig into your content, buy your product, sign up for your service, etc.

10.99? Is that $,€ or ¥ ?

Prices are just arbitrary numbers until you designate which currency they represent. This goes for measurements, as well. It’s a good idea to either dynamically convert these values, or provide a conversion chart. Also, just adding a $ to a number doesn’t entirely clarify the currency. Australia, Canada and New Zealand all use $, but have very different conversion rates! Be sure to prefix with the country abbreviation to avoid confusion.

Territories, Provinces and Country Codes… oh my!

Not all countries fragment their addresses the way we do in the States. For instance, zip codes are meaningless in other countries, while territories mean nothing in the U.S. Be sure to research your international target locations so you can provide form fields and labels that make sense to their region. Many 3rd party shopping carts already take this into consideration, but it’s a good thing to keep this in mind on your contact forms and such. Also, as a courtesy to your international callers, be sure to include your country code.

Keywords are words too!

Don’t forget to translate those keywords! This is how users find your site, and guaranteed, people Google in their native tongue. Just as we scour other sites and use Google Analytics to determine the hot English keywords, be sure to do the same for in your target languages. It also helps to run these by a native speaker, since they may have variations to consider.

In conclusion…

I’ve been fortunate to travel the world, and sometimes not so fortunate to be blocked by websites that are poorly designed for international audiences. Just because they can "see" your website, doesn’t necessarily guarantee they can make sense of the content once it loads. With a little pre-planning and research, you can avoid snafus that may lead to losing customers.

Hey, they don’t call it the World Wide Web for nothing! Think global!

And on that note, there’s a traditional Bulgarian band playing down the street.

наздраве “nazdrave” means “cheers”

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