Designing Across Cultures
By Ronnie Lipton July 24, 2015
Designing Across Cultures
By Ronnie Lipton July 24, 2015
Designing Across Cultures
By Ronnie Lipton July 24, 2015

In her book Designing Across Cultures, graphic designer/writer/trainer Ronnie Lipton provides advice on creating appropriate visual images in designs to diverse ethnic groups, including U.S. Hispanics, African Americans, Asians and Europeans. Here's an excerpt from the Asian-American chapter.

Stick With "Living" Icons

Slideshow Image

Slideshow Image

Slideshow Image

The fastest way to turn off your Asian audiences is to use funerary symbols in designs for the living. Many of the cultures’ superstitions deal with luck, and dying is considered exceedingly bad luck, so Asians use plenty of symbols to separate the living from the dead. They also use symbols to show special respect for the dead. For example, shooting stars – a positive symbol in Western cultures – is bad luck to Chinese, according to Cultural Insights, compiled by Kang & Lee. Other symbols of death and bad luck include colors and numbers, even the position of chopsticks.

The Thing About Chopsticks (see attached "Chopsticks" image)

After a Chinese funeral, it’s customary to have a meal at which a place is set for the dearly departed. At that place, also according to custom, rests a bowl of rice containing upright chopsticks. And in traditional Chinese and Japanese homes, the same symbol might appear in a shrine to a dead loved one. The image doesn’t belong in any advertising message except one like this: InterTrend uses the image in a house ad to say it takes a cultural expert to avoid such sticky situations.

About the image, the ad’s degree of impact depends on the viewer. Audiences come in three varieties, (Bill) Halladay (formerly of InterTrend) said: the ones who aren’t bothered by such an image; the ones who think it should bother them but it doesn’t; and those who find the image so alarming, they won’t even look at it. (The third category included some InterTrend employees!) What determines an immigrant’s degree of sensitivity, Halladay suggested, may be when that person left home. Cultural images become "pretty much locked in time" in a person’s consciousness based on the traditions in place at that time.

Flopped Flap Causes Flap (see attached "Kimono" image)

And watch how you fold models’ kimono! And you’d better watch it all the way through production. Even in a Japanese-American audience in modern times, sensitivities can reach deep. A community that will go unnamed here chose a photo of a kimono-clad young woman to promote a Japanese-American event. The woman properly wore her kimono with the left flap on top. No one noticed that the photo had been flopped – showing the right flap on top – until the image graced the full run of souvenir booklets, posters, banners and newspaper supplements. Then members of the planning committee "blew a gasket" and insisted on reprinting, said our source, a Japanese-American committee member who didn’t see the need for concern.

What was the big deal? The worst that happens with a non-Japanese flopped photo is that type – and wedding rings – loses its meaning or a hair part changes sides. But in Japan, only dead people are dressed with the right flap of the kimono on top. The community considers the incident so embarrassing that the person who told the story asked to remain anonymous so as not to identify the group by association. (As the source added, the need to save face is strong among Japanese people.)

Excerpted from Designing Across Cultures. ©2002. Used with permission of HOW Design Books, an imprint of F&W Publications Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Designing Across Cultures (192 pages) is available at most bookstores.

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