Anyone taking on the task of web design today needs to be aware of how certain symbols, designs and concepts could potentially be offensive to others. Does it mean that one needs to study rigorously all the cultures of the globe?  No, but it is a good idea to have a solid foundation as to cultural variances, which will go a long way towards creating a website that demonstrates cultural sensitivity.

Today, the internet is a global platform that reaches into the homes, businesses and lives of most people on every continent. Only the most remote, indigenous people are outside of the sphere of influence the rest of humanity lovingly calls the internet.  Cultural awareness is critical when designing and using the web ites, blogs and social media pages that will be used on this global platform.

Awareness of cultural practices, social mores, local customs and etiquette are essential to building web tools that do not cross the line and offend users.  It is not just the religious practices and social customs that must be heeded, but things like motifs, color, patterns, placement of text and elements, and the voice of that text.

Colors and Layouts

Nations such as Thailand and Mexico are very colorful and festive. Japan and Korea tend to use color more subtly. Some European nations and China love to make use of every square inch of website real estate, while other nations like the United States and the United Kingdom tend to respect the aesthetic value of so-called “white space” on a web page.

Selecting the wrong colors could result in a very embarrassing situation. Considerations include the color itself, its relation to cultural icons and other national symbols, meanings associated with the color. Shades, hues, tones, brightness, intensity and saturation must also be considered.  This is why it pays to be aware of cultural differences in web design.

Contextual Content

Overall design and layout must conform to the standards of the host nation while not offending others. Some sites publish their content in multiple languages, with that, the content must sometimes change for one reason or another. For instance, pages devoted to first responders in Arab nations would feature discussions, photos and graphics depicting the Red Crescent, not the Red Cross. Restaurants that establish a web presence overseas must design their pages to conform to the eating habits, dietary standards and social etiquette of the host nation. Keep in mind that on multi-lingual sites, these items will all conform to the host nation despite the text being in a foreign language.

Cultural Sensitivity

When deciding on visual elements, one should consider the design and impact of logos, graphics, artwork, pictures, videos, animations, and fonts. Images that could be construed as offensive in one nation might be extremely offensive in another. The same goes for videos and advertisements. The controversial Hardee’s, Inc. videos that are popular with young males in the West would not be acceptable in the Middle East. These videos contain images of beautiful young women, scantily clad, enjoying the latest offering from Hardee’s and their sister company Carl’s Jr.

Of course, food menus are a complete consideration all on their own. Referencing escargot may be quite acceptable in France, but in the U.S., not so much. While American web sites may feature triple-decker beef burgers packed with cheese and bacon strips, these images would be offensive in India, where the cow is sacred.  There are nations that allow horse and/or dog meat to be used, but in the U.S. claiming that a sandwich contained 100% pure equestrian meat would not be well-received.

When placing recognized cultural symbols on the page, the layout must conform to the expectations of the host culture. In the U.S. an upside-down American flag can mean distress or defiance depending on the context, and is generally viewed as distasteful. In fact, the U.S. and many other nations have adopted a written code that clearly defines how the U.S. flag shall be handled and displayed. Disrespecting a nation’s flag is viewed by many as the supreme insult.

Sexuality and Social Dynamics

Also of importance is to understand the cultural dynamics pertaining to the roles of men and women in the host society. Women in strict Islamic cultures are sublimated to their male counterparts and are not viewed as equals. Homosexuals and transgendered persons are not accepted in some nations and to use the photographs depicting these persons, can be very problematic. Even pictures that blur the lines of the host society’s perceptions of gender could be viewed as unacceptable.

Other social dynamics along the same line are those dealing with the power structure and hierarchy established in the host nation. If the host nation is non-capitalist, images reflecting a more wealth-oriented approach to life may be unacceptable. Elements that depict the rugged individualism that is revered in the U.S. may find that it doesn’t go over well in cultures that practice collectivism.


While it is not a requirement that one become a master of world culture in order to design an acceptable web site, blog or social media page, it would serve any design well to do a study of the host nation and have a trusted source for information pertaining to any questionable elements.


By Alisha Webb. Alisha is a content developer for Datadial –  Web design and digital marketing agency in West London.

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