A logo design is responsible for conveying so much without words, encapsulating who a business is and what it does. But just because a logo relies on communication through visuals doesn’t mean its message will translate any easier across languages. Cross-cultural logo design is a way to ensure that the meaning of a logo is clear to all audiences.
Cultural sensibilities will affect every aspect of logo design, from the text to the imagery to the actual colors used. But while it can seem obvious in our increasingly globalized world that a logo design should not be culturally alienating, the question of how to implement a cross-cultural design is not so obvious.
At the end of the day, one logo has to work in multiple, diverse contexts. The good news is that’s always been the challenge of logo design, whether we’re talking about the physical material a logo has to be printed on or the cultural background a logo has to fit into. With this guide, we’re going to walk you through the basics of how culture influences logo design.
Multicultural design approaches
There are four main approaches to be aware of when creating or adapting a design for a new cultural market.
- Translation: Translation is an exact, direct transcription of words from one language to another.
- Localization: Localization is like a cultural translation—you change the message itself to resonate with a specific culture rather than merely changing the language of the words.
- Internationalization: Internationalization generally refers to taking something that was not created with an international market in mind and broadening its appeal to international markets after the fact.
- Cross-cultural design: Cross-cultural design (a term coined by author Senongo Akpem that comes out of the product design world) is a holistic process of making cultural considerations priority in every part of the design. This can mean that you allow your multicultural learnings to inform your design approach even in the native version of the design
These approaches are not mutually exclusive—cross-cultural design, for example, often combines the other three. With that said, localization is generally preferable to direct translation because it requires more thought and audience tailoring. Similarly, while internationalization may be unavoidable in many cases, it is preferable to design a logo with international markets in mind from the very beginning.
How culture affects every aspect of a logo
A logo can be broken down into different parts, and each of these has meaning. Those meanings should harmonize with each other, contributing to one overall impression. But those meanings can also change drastically depending on culture, affecting what a logo says to its audience.
These aspects of a logo can be literal (such as the lines, shapes, and colors) and intuitive (such as the entire backing concept behind the logo). You will need to make sure that all aspects retain their meaning across cultures.
The brand is the part of the logo that you cannot see, but it is arguably the essence of the logo design. Brand, after all, is what the logo design is meant to express.
Brands often have to adjust to the immediate audience they are serving. For example, when Starbucks was looking to break into European markets, it discovered from research that local attitudes found it to be overpriced, inferior coffee. With this in mind, Starbucks designed an elaborate “coffee laboratory” store in Amsterdam to stand out in the serious local cafe scene. In other places in Europe, it lent into the lowbrow association, offering a cheap street coffee option.
With this in mind, it is important to settle how your brand will manifest itself differently in the culture you are looking to appeal to. Visual adaptations for the logo will follow from there. For example, when the American fast food chain Burger King expanded into Australia, it found that a similar local brand already existed, so it changed its name to Hungry Jack’s. When the Burger King logo was later redesigned to keep up with the competition, Hungry Jack’s retained the classic design based on how well it continued to perform in the local market.
Your brand name is likely going to be predetermined and not something you want to change from market to market (though that’s not unheard of). In many cases, it’s perfectly fine to have a unique brand name whose meaning is not immediately apparent to the audience. For example, a popular business in America is the Swedish furniture brand Ikea. Most English-speaking shoppers will not readily know what that name means, but they don’t need to: like any name, it just acts as a unique signifier.
At the same time, you’ll want to be aware of unintentional translations that may occur in your brand name—like if the name gets close to a word that is crude or otherwise confusing in another language. A workaround in this case can be to change the name or lean on an abbreviation.
Another important consideration is pronunciation: is the market you are aiming for going to have a hard time saying the name, to the point that they might just avoid saying it altogether? When translating the name into another writing system, you may have to make decisions on how to guide pronunciation. Just be sure to take your cues from how native speakers naturally want to pronounce it rather than enforcing a pronunciation that is entirely unintuitive.
A tagline or slogan is a supporting phrase that provides more information about a brand and what it does, usually in a persuasive and memorable way. Because the tagline is much less important than the brand name, it can be changed freely for different audiences. And because it is usually meant to be catchy, it is important the phrase is culturally relevant. You’ll want to avoid embarrassments like when the popular “Got Milk?” slogan from the California Milk Processor Board was directly translated to “Are you lactating?” in Spanish.
Another reason why you might need to change the tagline for different languages is to account for text expansion. The tagline is usually a longer text phrase than the brand name, and text length can grow exponentially longer when directly translating.
Colors come with a number of psychological associations. In some cases, these are biological (as in which colors we might identify as poison when connected to food) but more often they are based on history and tradition.
Colors that work with one audience can have the opposite reaction with another—for example, red is often associated with passion and excitement in many Western cultures whereas in South Africa it is associated with funerals. This infographic by information is beautiful is a great place to start for cross-referencing different cultural associations with colors, but you’ll want to do more in-depth research based on the specific cultural markets you are targeting.
Symbolism refers to the specific imagery that a logo uses. This is where much of a logo’s conceptual design will come into play, as the iconography expresses a central metaphor key to the brand’s identity. Because symbols are so potent with historical, literary or religious references, their meaning is inevitably derived from implicit cultural understandings. This is true of specific symbols (such as the cross signifying first aid, which references Christian salvation) and general symbols (such as the personality traits we associate with different animals).
Logos that use abstract images or logos that eliminate images entirely (such as wordmarks) can get around symbols that are not culturally relevant. However, the more important thing is to make sure the symbol or imagery isn’t sending completely unintentional or offensive messages. A symbol, like a name, should be true to the thing it is identifying, even if its meaning might not be immediately apparent to everyone.
Different cultures will have different ways of reading information. English readers typically read from left to right, but Arabic is read right to left. Additionally, many East Asian scripts are written vertically in addition to horizontally. These reading patterns go beyond text and will include how all visual information is processed. With this in mind, it is important to consider doing more than simply flipping a logo—you will need to tweak all elements of the logo design to look natural in a new orientation.
Areas of research on cultural markets
The first step toward approaching an unfamiliar culture is to abandon all assumptions. Our cultural upbringing is deeply entrenched, and this leads us to treat many culturally specific ideas as universal on an unconscious level. The only way to unlearn these assumptions is by researching other cultures. When it comes to logo design, here are some relevant areas of inquiry to start looking into:
With the way that app design has ramped up around the globe, UX and product designers will have already learned through trial and error what icons work and don’t in certain cultures, and logo designers can learn much by consulting with these folks. Some governments, like China, have standardized icon systems, and these will translate into common imagery people readily understand that can be repurposed in a logo symbol.
Additionally as you would at the start of any logo project, you will need to research logo trends in a local area: both in terms of your local competitors and just in general. For example, Japanese localization consulting firm Btrax identifies that companies in Japan tend to favor classic text-based logos without symbols.
Psychology is usually thought of as applying to individuals, but there are certain mindsets, behaviors and values that can be generally applied to an entire population. For the business world, a popular cultural psychology model has been developed by business consultant Fons Trompenaars: “The Seven Dimensions of Culture.” These rank cultural attitudes on a series of scales, such as neutral vs. emotional (how comfortable certain cultures are with expressions of emotion) and achievement vs ascription (whether individuals are judged based on who they are or what they have achieved).
Additionally, social psychologist Geert Hofstede developed the cultural dimensions theory. This creates another set of dimensions, such as the power distance index (how cultures generally view power imbalances and what qualifies legitimate authority) and individualism vs. collectivism (to what degree cultures are communally or individually motivated). Models like these help give designers a starting place for understanding what messages will be persuasive to a particular audience based on their relationships to each other and to authority.
History is a nebulous topic, and it might not seem immediately apparent how it is relevant to logo design. But researching the history of the region essentially provides context for the above two points, and it can also explain traditions in regard to cultural associations with imagery. Consider that the visual arts develop differently across cultures, and you’ll often find a direct line between historical art movements and politics. This history can inform your understanding of a culture’s aesthetic sensibilities. It’s also worth noting that many color associations have their roots in communal traditions, such as weddings, holidays and funerals.
At the end of the day, there is no substitute for directly speaking with the actual members of a certain culture. This would mean getting impressions of a logo from the population, either through focus testing, surveys or A/B tests. When gathering and reviewing feedback, keep in mind cultural psychology here and how communication can vary from culture to culture: for one, communication styles can impact how direct criticism is.
Finally, it can be useful to work with logo designers from the culture as they will have firsthand knowledge of what design choices will resonate. A global design services marketplace like 99designs allows clients to connect and consult with designers from all around the world.
Specificity vs. generality in cross-cultural logo design
Because it is one logo that will represent a brand, logos do have to maintain a certain level of mass appeal. But does this mean that a cross-cultural logo design approach necessitates generality? In other words, does a logo have to eliminate everything that makes it unique for the sake of common understanding?
Logo design is an expression of a brand’s identity, which means that it is all about specificity. What you are trying to avoid in a cross-cultural setting is misunderstanding and confusion, and specificity is one of the best tools for doing so.
Specificity begins with the cultural markets that you are looking at. Rather than making a logo generally international, you need to consider which specific cultures you are looking to expand your business in. And your research should narrow to specific regions, as attitudes, values and even dialects will vary even within entire countries.
This is where localization comes into play by changing a design to resonate more specifically with an audience. Localization in logo design can manifest through logo design variations. It has become increasingly common to design logos with alternate colors, orientations and abbreviations.
All in all, specificity can make an audience feel included, whereas generic design can make a brand seem like they are keeping the audience at arm’s length with a neutral facade.
Cross-cultural design benefits logos
Cultural differences are an inevitable factor in logo design. But a cross-cultural approach is not about eliminating design features or telling you what your logo can’t do. It is about learning from other cultures, broadening your aesthetic horizons and creating more effective logos. Not only is this the inclusive thing to do—it is good business.
When it comes to cross-cultural logo design, the best way for clients to avoid making assumptions is to work with a designer whose perspective is outside of their own. Freelance designers from culturally diverse locations can provide not only expert consultation but beautiful logos that resonate.