Multicultural Design: Adapting Visual Systems from Western to Eastern Countries

Living in Silicon Valley exposes you to a very diverse population from all around the world. One of the side effects of this is being introduced to different ways of thinking in design. 

Mathew Talebi writes this is a short but packed with good practical knowledge about what it takes to consider creating visual systems (or content, for that matter) that works well both in the West and East cultures.

It's hard enough to cater to language barriers and overall differences in word length, but let's consider English and Japanese as a whole, with its wildly different character set. Due to the nature of its shapes, Japanese characters form a perfect block in height and width, much unlike Latin type with uppercase and lowercase variations (just as an example).

From a visual block perspective, Japanese falls neatly on a grid system, as space is filled up equally. With English, the overall white space could change significantly, as demonstrated in this example. An interesting detail to note is:

In this sense grid design can be more favorable for languages with block characters such as Japanese, Chinese, and Korean. Of course, in English we could write in all capitalized letters— but it’s not very readable or favorable in long form articles. Many websites from Asia especially game sites do adopt all capitalized words for headlines and navigation to keep the same look and feel as their native counterpart.

Most likely not applicable to every web internationalised product out there, but often there's vertical text to be considered, too:

With vertical text comes vertical layouts. Many of the languages from Asia are capable of being read vertically just the same as horizontally. Because their languages can be read vertically, designs can be horizontally compact, allowing for a more natural mobile adaptation in some instances.

Luckily, CSS already gives us some tools to help with this, like `writing-mode`. As an aside, there's a pretty good introductory article by W3C.

Overall whitespace differences, and especially line height ones, also need to be taken into account if you're going for multi-language support. Japanese characters, as we've seen, are more block based as a visual system: take for example Latin ascenders and descenders, which naturally create a different reading rhythm and changing the overall weight of the text flow.

There's more to be unpacked from this article, so make sure you don't miss it.


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