Adapting Your Design for a Foreign Audience

By / Jul 21, 2011 / Tips

In this digital age, the rest of the world is just a mouse-click away. More people are wanting to appeal to audiences overseas. And why not? With less content on the foreign language internet , it’s easier for sites to climb the heady heights of Google and claim the coveted top slot on international search engines. But what happens when your existing website is tailored for those who only speak English?

There are a number of factors and tweaks you’ll need to make when adapting your design to be accessible for a multilingual audience.

Design for a Foreign Audience

Easy as A-B-C

If your webpage was originally developed with Unicode, then you can breathe a sigh of relief. If it’s not, then you’ve got some work to do. Along with different languages comes the issue of different alphabets, and Unicode really is the best way to support a number of different scripts. UTF-8 can open your website up to over 90 written languages and can tailor for just about any non-English character you could possibly think of, including those characters in the Cyrillic, Farsi and Hebrew alphabets.

Design for a Foreign Audience

Navigating Success

Speaking of Hebrew, some languages read from right to left, so you’ll have to change those navigation bars if your new target language demands it. Whether you decide to swap the menus over to the other side or simply put in a horizontal navigation bar depends entirely on your own creative juices.

Design for a Foreign Audience

Getting Flashy

How much Flash are you using? More to the point, why are you still using Flash?! Unfortunately it’s not easily translated, and may need to be completely redone. It’s also worth remembering that some countries (particularly developing countries) across the world may not have high-speed internet access yet, meaning all your hard work could potentially be wasted if you’re not careful. You can solve this by creating a simple HTML site if necessary. Do your research first!

Design for a Foreign Audience

Content is King

Okay, so while the content may not necessarily impact on the design, it’s a pretty important consideration. Any existing material will need to be translated, preferably by a pro. True, there are free tools out there like Google Translate or Babelfish that can do the job for you, but machine translation generally isn’t up to scratch and could leave you with a site full of garbled text that no design genius could persuade people to love. Human translators can also make sure there are no cultural faux pas, jargon or other linguistic nuances that could leave you looking unprofessional.

Design for a Foreign Audience

Culture Clash

As well as a different language, other cultures simply view the world differently. This might sound a bit daunting as a designer, but a little bit of knowledge will go a long way. Anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher Edward T. Hall devised a framework that classifies different cultures into low context and high context. Low context cultures like Germany and Scandanavia prefer clear statements with an obvious message, whereas Japan and other Eastern cultures place more emphasis on visual stimulus or other communicative devices.

High Context


Arab Countries






North America

Scandinavian Countries

German-speaking Countries

Low Context

Source: Understanding Cultural Differences by Hall, E. and Hall, M.

This may mean changing the layout or the way in which you get your point across. For an American website trying to launch in Japan, for example, you should pay more attention to the use of images and the more subtle ways that your message can be conveyed.

Colour me Beautiful

It’s also wise to be aware of the different cultural meanings of colours. In the West, red will conjure up fiery thoughts of passion or love, while over the water in South Africa, red is the colour of mourning, signifying death. Of course you’re never going to please everyone, but going for a neutral light background with dark text will generally put you in good stead for being multi-culturally friendly.

Design for a Foreign Audience

So what are you waiting for? If you do your research right and adapt your website properly for a multilingual audience, the world can soon become your cyber-oyster.

About the Author

Christian Arno is the founder of Lingo24, providing professional translations and multilingual SEO. Launched in 2001, Lingo24 now has over 150 employees spanning three continents and clients in over sixty countries. In the past twelve months, they have translated over sixty million words for businesses in every industry sector. Follow Christian (@l24ca) and Lingo24 (@Lingo24) on Twitter.

  • ohmno

    Nice article, but you’ve made a mistake in the list of high/low context cultures.
    I’m not sure where should be the delimiter between those two cultures.

  • Salman Saeed

    Nice tips :)

  • Evan Skuthorpe

    Nice article. The only way to design for such broad possible audiences is to keep the design simple, open and adaptable. Otherwise, you’ll probably need to tailor a website for each region you cover.

  • Soran

    Great article, enjoyed reading it, when it comes to RTL languages, its important to pay close attention to how the content looks and do a lot of testing!

  • Floricel

    Hi Christian, this is such a informative post. A bit delivered in a wider sense. But you’ve presented very true and good points that every designer should always consider and remember.

    Just an additional meaning for the color red here, in Chinese it’s the color for joy and good fortune. :)

  • Nicole

    Wait, what is that about the high/low context cultures? I’m German and I feel slightly misunderstood. Any proof for your hypothesises?

  • Shalini

    Great Article!!

    All the tips really very informative for adapting Foreign Audience.
    Thanks for Sharing