AB Thinks  →  18th October 2021

Starting the conversation – Cultural sensitivity in design

In recent years we have seen a tremendous shift in addressing inequality in our society. Countless movements have risen to fight for the rights of people of different races, gender, identities, and of course the environment. This increased awareness of the need for change in how we confront social issues impacts everyday communications. We’re starting to hold each other more accountable for our shared social responsibility, and the corporate world is no exception.

An important aspect of these issues is that they are not new. Systemic oppression is not something that’s just been discovered but we’re experiencing a new and very necessary wave of reflection. Looking at the industry I work in, it’s as clear as day – there is a severe lack of equal representation.

As designers, we are trusted to speak on behalf of other people in the work we produce and portray people authentically, and yet the majority of designers in the UK are white and most of them are male. With such little diversity, there is a great need for cultural awareness, otherwise, we simply aren’t doing our job properly.

At AB we believe in starting a conversation. I hosted a lunch and learn session to raise awareness of these issues, specifically, what we need to be looking out for to better serve our clients and indeed each other. See some of the key things we discussed below.

#1 Context and consideration
We’re familiar with the golden rule: “Treat others like you would like to be treated,” but when it comes to cultural differences, the most effective rule is “Treat others the way they want to be treated”. We have a responsibility to learn about the historical connotations of visual elements we use. We might only understand a pattern, font or image from within the context of our own experience but need to be more aware of how others might experience them. Acknowledge different perspectives even when you may not be able to fully share them, this is how we can actively practice cultural awareness and sensitivity in our day-to-day design work.

Some things have very different meanings in different cultures, i.e., colours, hand gestures, symbols and patterns. Death is usually represented by the colour black in Western countries but white in Japan. Love is usually red for Westerners, green in Japan, yellow in India and blue in many parts of Africa. Differences like these need to be taken into consideration when servicing a client in another part of the world and indeed to reach the right audience in the diverse areas that we service.

#2 Inspiration vs appropriation
Taking an idea from concept to completion is a process, and the design process relies on inspiration. The diverse cultures of the world offer an unlimited tap of creativeness but there is a fine line between harmless inspiration and appropriation. Although most people have sincere intentions, when exposed to certain aspects of a different culture, it’s common to compare them with your own without considering their original meaning.

On the day of my lunch and learn, rather than lecturing my peers on this subject and risking alienating people I chose to simply start a conversation. I showed them examples of designs by popular brands that had been subject to criticism from the public and we discussed why that might be. – Do you make time and space for open discussions with your colleagues during the design process?

Celebrating others’ cultures is appropriation if you’re not sensitive to background and context. A Native American headdress isn’t the same thing as a crown, as the wearer of a crown is usually not someone who has a long history of being oppressed by people in power – quite the opposite.

In most cases, the issues we discussed seemed clear to everyone, but less obvious examples seem to be the use of stereotypography (fonts that are based on stereotypical aspects of a culture). Something we spoke about was the connotations a font can bring to a design and even the potentially damaging names of fonts. For example, a font to promote a family movie that is labelled “primitive”, or an East Asian restaurant that needs to look appealing to a Westerner’s idea of what that cuisine represents.

#3 Co-create and sense check with the audience
I have no interest in calling out those who have made mistakes in the past. Most likely we all have. Instead, I think it’s helpful to reflect and think of ways to keep them from happening again. Compare what you’ve learnt to scenarios you may not question today and think of the advice you could get from the people around you. Your colleagues and clients can help educate you on the subject.

If you’re working on a project with a specific audience in mind don’t be afraid to reach out to the end-user and make sure you’re not speaking on behalf of someone without understanding what is being said.

#4 Stay bold and creative
And finally, stay bold and creative. You can do amazing work if you do the research, you’re ready to make mistakes and open to feedback. When we work together to produce something authentic and considerate to the users or audience, we can create truly amazing and inclusive design work.

When Amazon launched in India, they discovered that the magnifying glass icon for the search bar wasn’t being used because the icon didn’t resonate in that culture. When you open the Arabic version of Facebook the layout is flipped to read right to left. These examples show that to serve our clients well we need to work with them and not just for them to find the right solution. Something small can create a long-standing connection with a user, so don’t underestimate the power of your questions.

Many of the people in our industry come from privileged backgrounds so they haven’t had to think about some of the aforementioned issues until recently. But until the workforce in design is diverse and representative, there is a responsibility to use your privilege and recognise the opportunity to make a difference for the better. I hope to do my part in keeping the conversation going so that we can continue to improve our communications.