Graphics & Images: Localization and Cultural Differences

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The South African Chamber of Mines needed to address health and safety issues for their employees. Most were illiterate, so the decision was taken to give instructions pictorially. One such image was that below; the purpose of which was to keep tracks clear.

Henry Dreyfuss’ “Symbol Sourcebook”


The tracks were not kept clear and in fact they became blocked. Why? The miners were reading it from right to left!


The explosion of international trade has resulted in new markets, new languages, new cultures and more importantly new ways of thinking. What the above example demonstrates is that cultural differences can impact the simplest of things when it comes to platforms of communication. Whether it’s a website, a health & safety manual, a graphical user interface (GUI) or signage, all in one way or another need to be adapted according to their audience.


Much is written online about the need to localize. Whether it’s locally appropriate translations or the correct use of currencies/units of measurements, the message is clear that designers, marketers and businesses generally need to “act local” to ensure maximum success. However, one area that gets little attention is imagery, graphics, icons and pictures.


Although graphics and imagery do pose certain challenges, they do also present a massive benefit perfectly captured in the well known phrase, “a picture can speak a thousand words”. Graphics have the ability to save on words, bridge languages and timelines. One only needs to think of the globally recognised ‘no smoking’ sign to appreciate its simple power. Using graphics can reduce translation costs, allow for easier understanding and improve comprehension.


Failure to communicate accurately is potentially disastrous. When using images, pictures and graphics, designers need to think about the audience or ‘readers’. One very basic consideration is how someone reads; not everyone in the world reads left to right. Within images it is therefore useful if one uses arrows to direct the eye in the correct order.


So what are some common pitfalls?


Region Specific Symbols


Try to avoid the use of letters, punctuations and other verbal symbols that might only make sense where you come from. The symbol below may very well make sense in Western Europe, but what about in China?





Try not to be too clever with verbal analogies. A simple example would be using an image of a mouse to represent a mouse (for your PC). It’s not called a mouse all over the world. Actually try and avoid animals unless you research the associations within a country or culture. In some cases it could be a positive.




Be aware of colours as their symbolic meanings differ from culture to culture. The Japanese interpret red as anger/danger whereas       the Chinese relate it to joy/festivities. This doesn’t mean colour should be avoided; simply researched and used wisely.



Human Figures


Care should be taken with human representations. Some cultures are sensitive to this; others will interpret images in their own particular ways. In the Islamic world there are protocols around how both men and women are portrayed. If using human figures try to go for neutral, simple outlines of people.




Following on from the above, hand gestures can also be tricky. One culture’s thumbs up is another ‘**** you’. Hands though are really useful when used alongside objects to illustrate how to open or operate something.




As one can see, there are a few potential stumbling blocks to the use of icons, images, graphics and pictures internationally. However, this should not put people off using them. The message is, ‘use them but take care’. A simple way of ensuring your icon can be internationally recognised to use ISO recognised symbols like those below. They have taken the time and trouble to test them internationally so you don’t need to worry about them.

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