Cultural Differences In Symbols And Colors: A Romp In Globalization Land

March 12, 2010

As the world becomes increasingly globalized, cultures that had been isolated from each others’ customs for thousands of years are quite suddenly thrust into economic and social cooperation with each other.  The primary motivator, of course, is money, so thousands of businesses and corporations must now learn how to deal with each other and how to sell their products in other countries.  Designers of these products and services are among those at the forefront of this change.  One of their major challenges is to create compelling designs, yet make the images and colors they use culture-neutral, or universal.  Quite a challenge, if one is not educated on some cultural sensitivity in his design field.

This is a very important concept for me personally, as well.  As a prospective 3D artist at a game company, I will create work that will be received by gamers the world over.  Games are truly a world medium, with Japan, North America, and Europe being the three major markets, but people from Brazil to India could also very well play my game as well.  I would not want to be the guy who created a character whose coloring was offensive to a person from another (read:  non-American/Western) culture.

Anyhoo, allow me to provide an example of a visual icon that represents completely different ideas in two distinct cultures.  I give you the rat.

Chinese Rat Symbol

Generally speaking, the rat is generally not a respected animal in the West (Europe, America).  This probably has to do with its association with disease, the Black Plague, and its general habits of hanging around filthy areas.  However, in China, the rat is a respected creature, so much so that it is one of the twelve animals of the Zodiac.  Qualities associated with rats in that country include creativity, honesty, and generosity – a far cry from the revulsion felt by Westerners.  Thus, when a rat is depicted visually like in the above image, people from these two different parts of the world will have different reactions.  An American will feel repulsed and possibly squeamish, while a Chinese person would most likely look at it like just another respected animal.

Yet images aren’t the only things that can differ in their cultural meaning.  The colors themselves can illicit varied reactions from different cultures, and the differences can be surprising.  For instance, purple invokes mourning or widows in Thailand, whereas in the West it is associated with royalty.  Quite the difference.  A lead character with elements of purple in his armor might be unintentionally thought to be a depressed kind of guy, were that character’s game released in Thailand.  In the rest of the world, the color might reinforce his leadership status.

Advertisements are another realm where cultural ignorance might cause problems.  In April 2008 Absolut Vodka ran into a snafu with one of its ads, which was intended for a Mexican audience:

An Absolut Reconquista?

While Absolut was simply trying to tap into Mexican nationalism in order to sell its brand, the company didn’t think about how a lot of Americans would react when they saw the ad.  It was never released in the U.S., but, nevertheless, media outlets picked it up and many Americans were offended.  To them, it looked anti-American and invoked the idea that Mexico wanted to take back some American land.  Read the original article here for more information:  http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/laplaza/2008/04/mexico-reconque.html

This is just one example of a cultural bungle that is a result of confusion with the globalization of design I mentioned earlier.  Absolut, a Swedish company, simply looked at a historical perspective that they thought would help their vodka sell better in Mexico, while neglecting to look at how another culture could view that same issue.  Had they done a little research and test-viewed their ad before finalizing the design, they might have found out the implications and avoided this whole issue.  It was just a simple mistake, but it might have cost them some sales in the U.S.

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2 Responses to “Cultural Differences In Symbols And Colors: A Romp In Globalization Land”

  1. Mark said

    Cultural globalization is full of surprises and it can be difficult to predict how individual cultures will react to external media. But as well as bringing challenges to the design arena, it should be remembered that it also brings a whole wealth of ideas – creative input from across the globe that would never have made it into other cultures without mediums such as the internet.

    • That’s true! There’s always a good side of the coin. If designers work together to fuse different cultural views on a project it can be much more exciting than it would have been otherwise.

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