Speak UpA Former Division of UnderConsideration
The Archives, August 2002 – April 2009
advertise @ underconsideration
---Click here for full archive list or browse below
Es el Diseño Gröfico Universal?

Is graphic design a universal language? As the face of the United States changes, how do designers fit into the growing language challenges? For instance, the new light rail system in Minneapolis has ticket machines that have instructions in four languages: English, Spanish, Somali and Hmong.

What are some strategies for designing something that needs to communicate in many languages? Are there other ways than just having multiple translations? Will this place more emphasis on universal symbolism? What are some potential problems? Even a color in one culture can have a drastically different interpretation in another.

This need for cross-cultural communications has given rise to specialized design firms like UNO whose slogan is Branding for the New Majority. While Minneapolis has a population growing more diverse every year, it is not Los Angeles where more than fifty percent of the population is Hispanic. Will studios like UNO be the future of creative firms in America? Any examples of this happening overseas?

Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
PUBLISHED ON Feb.20.2004 BY brook
Sarah B.’s comment is:

That is such a major topic of design in my office. We are constantly trying to convey thoughts, items, everything for a variety of languages and cultures. And many of our users have learning disabilities as well.

We make everything look like what it is... and simplify symbolism... our goal is to make everything "readable" as if the user cannot understand any language, at all!

Wow... horrible flashbacks of semiotics class!

It was one of those class topics that I thought I would never use.. and one I think of every day!

Sometimes more complicated than not!

On Feb.20.2004 at 09:21 AM
Armin’s comment is:

Brook, this is an excellent topic. The hispanic community is the fastest growing ethnic group in the US. The Census can only track those who are legally in the country and in some states those numbers have already outgrown the African-American population — imagine what the numbers would be if they counted all the illegal immigrants in California and other bordering states.

Anyway, the inclusion of spanish, as well as other languages, in daily things like the rail system is unavoidable. And I, for one, am happy that the government has woken up to the fact that they must be able to communicate with people whose native language is not english. These people play a huge role in the economy and I guess it is important they know how to purchase tickets to get on the train and get to work.

Also, the work of firms like UNO or Un Burro, employ a lot of Mexico's vernacular language which is why thir work looks so cool. They are able to bring the visual languages from Latin countries and apply them with an American approach creating some really exciting work. These past two weeks I have been working on an article that deals with this cross-cultural issue (in the end it morphed into something different, but I explored many of these issues).

On Feb.20.2004 at 09:52 AM
brook’s comment is:

i love the work too...and not just mexican design. i have a lot of books about design in other countries. they are my favorite sources of inspiration. sometimes i'm looking at them for a style, but i just as often look to find a new way of thinking about something, a new layout, or whatever.

On Feb.20.2004 at 10:02 AM
marian’s comment is:

In Canada, of course we've been dealing with 2 languages for as long as I can remember. Unfortunately I don't think I've ever seen an innovative treatment for the English/French. It's always simply a matter of double the copy, and/or flip the product. This is the way it's been done for so long I think anyone who even tried to do something interesting with it would never get out of the concept stage.

But with the US's second language (and more) coming into being in such a highly designed era, it will be interesting to see how it's creatively handled.

Out here on the west coast we are starting to deal with a third language: Chinese. I can imagine all sorts of cool things that could be done with that, but not understanding the characters or the culture is a major hurdle.

On Feb.20.2004 at 10:48 AM
brook’s comment is:

can a designer be successful at this without knowing the other languages?

On Feb.20.2004 at 10:54 AM
Armin’s comment is:

> can a designer be successful at this without knowing the other languages?

I think it is possible. Ideally the designer would know both languages but that's rarely the case. I think it is more important to have a good translator and proofreader. I have done a couple of spanish/english pieces here and you wouldn't believe the horrible translations I have to work with.

A common treatment for two-language pieces is to set the English in regular text and the other language in italics. Or the top half of the page English and bottom half the other language. Graphis' books all come in like four languages and they do it very elegantly and simply just by doing one page for each language. Not overly creative but it gets the job done.

On Feb.20.2004 at 11:08 AM
Patricio’s comment is:

Context is a big deal in this business. Finding a common language (cultural, symbolic, etc) between three different spoken languages is hard (because of the cultural barrier) but if they all live in the same country they are all influenced by the same media. And with globalization, a (universal?) language of cultural icons is slowly emerging.

On Feb.20.2004 at 11:22 AM
garrison’s comment is:

I produce a number of bilingual Spanish/English publications for a large nonprofit in Los Angeles. When we started, we couldn't find any set rules for dealing with two languages at a time, so we made them up as we went along. Rather than have the languages face off, we mix them and give each an identifying typeface or color, so readers know at a glance what they're getting into. Even so, we're always on the lookout for news ways to publish in two languages. It's been impossible for us to find any guidance in this area, needless to say any compelling examples.

On Feb.20.2004 at 12:19 PM
brook’s comment is:

It's been impossible for us to find any guidance in this area

yikes. even in LA? i doubt you have the budget, but there must be a consultancy or agency that could lend some advice? i dont have the time to search amazon, but does anyone know any books on the subject?

On Feb.20.2004 at 12:23 PM
Jeff G’s comment is:

Here in Wales we have the Welsh Language Board and they have produced this nifty guide to bilingual design. There's nothing earth-shatteringly creative in it, but it covers the basics & the peculiarities of Welsh quite well. They also sponsor an annual bilingual design awards event. Again, nothing incredible design-wise, but it's good to see the effort being made.

On Feb.20.2004 at 01:07 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Lucille Tenazas' presentation at AIGA's Vancouver conference talked about this subject. This is from the AIGA site:

Typography and the language of culture

Designers are eminently qualified to position themselves as cultural observers because typography can serve as a barometer of various waves of thinking. Perhaps it is an opportune time to look at the possibility of a visual ligature or a conjoined system of letterforms and images, where the gestalt of a series of letters overrides each letterform’s individual characteristics. Prominent communication- graphics designer Lucille Tenazas argues that it is through a designer’s trained eye that we can establish visual relationships where none existed before, and we can trust that our need for personal expression does not have to be sacrificed in our desire for a common cultural understanding.

I hate to admit it, but I walked out of the presentation and went to another breakout session.

On Feb.20.2004 at 01:53 PM
steve’s comment is:

Beyond the relatively simple issues of translation and layout,

there is a much larger issue of cultural difference and meaning.

Speaking to someone in a language they understand is just the beginning.

Saying something that is relevant to their life is the key.

Good design...better yet, good communication, is rooted in a mastery and juxtaposition of cultural cues.

Simply translating can often be too blunt a solution.

On Feb.20.2004 at 02:31 PM
Su’s comment is:

Brook, I think your question betrays your title.

I wouldn't think design is a universal language, at least not from the moment you drop any actual words into a piece. That immediately gives it some amount of place. Even without that, though, there are visual cues that will also place, or at least tend to suggest a culture(Purple, orange and red mean Mexico, apparently.) Lean too far towards universality and you end up with the popsicle people style used to denote bathrooms and escalators. Yeah, pretty much everybody gets it, but it's necessarily pretty sterile.

You seem more concerned with localized universality in a given culture that might include multiple(not all) languages, which I think is a lot more interesting to watch. To reference Steve's point, there are billboards here in Chicago with identical art and layout, with copy in the Spanish version that while conveying the same tone isn't just a translation of the English version, which I've always been impressed by. There are also other times where it seems an agency fed the English copy into Babelfish. That's just lazy, and people do notice it.

Mpls actually has enough of a population to include Somali and Hmong on public signage stuff? I'd never have thought.

On Feb.20.2004 at 03:31 PM
ps’s comment is:

In switzerland all government related information needs to be in at least four languages. German,french, italian and r�to-romanish. At least that's how it had to be as of a few years ago. (maybe one of the reasons why grid-systems are drilled into swiss design-students' brains.) But having different languages does not mean the needs of different cultures, other than their language, are being addressed. And in the case of a small country, that might not be needed as the audience still has the same cultural roots. The further apart the cultural roots are, the more challenging it'll be as it will require completely different concepts.

I remember that during the dot-com boom, when the world seemed to shrink to the size of a computerscreen, there was a lot of talk about global design concepts for all these brands that were out to conquer the world. I don't see that much of the global-solutions talk anymore, but when i do read about it, it seems to be more of a "lessons learned" type nature, now are more focused on understanding a different culture and adapting to local approach, rather than simply over-running it. Something that I see as a positive.

On Feb.20.2004 at 03:39 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> (Purple, orange and red mean Mexico, apparently.)

"Striking new style of wood cuts and aggressive colors, well mixed to create the Fiesta theme. Influenced by Mexican and South American designs and cover a variety of topics from food,"

That just sent shivers down my spine. Ugh. I mean, we are festive people and all… but not that festive.

On Feb.20.2004 at 03:57 PM
brook’s comment is:

Mpls actually has enough of a population to include Somali and Hmong on public signage stuff? I'd never have thought.

well, no. the rail system is really the first thing that will be multilingual. but there is a sizable population of both, and hopefully this draws attention to them. it was a tough fight for metro liberals to even get the four languages. it is important because these communities have very few car owners. they are both still outnumbered by the hispanic community. there's a great section of town that is mostly hispanic and has a lot of advertising in spanish. very attractive advertising at that. that uno studio i was referring to actually moved into that neighborhood (it's referred to as eat street) which is really cool since it is not at all the design studio neighborhood. the design studios are mostly clustered in an old section of minneapolis called the warehouse district (which is also beautiful). target is very very aware of the growing hispanic community, and does a lot of this kind of work with uno and others.

On Feb.20.2004 at 08:17 PM
brook’s comment is:

da da da da da da

it's the D) double G

is it the next episode??? lol

On Feb.21.2004 at 04:08 AM
Steve’s comment is:

It seems like a lot of the basic info for a train system could be done without using any copy at all, or at least very simple language. Color codes denoting zones and respective fares could be used. The street names are english by default, and time schedules and pricing would be numeric. I would think that basic codes of conduct and safety instructions could be depicted graphically. I guess I'm curious to see what exactly they're trying to convey, that has to be in four languages. Minneapolis has several other fairly large immigrant populations who would be better served by more universal graphic language.

I don't want to sound like I have a problem with multilingualism, as I feel it's an inevitable reality of an increasingly diverse country...but I have traveled extensively in Asia and managed to get around just fine with minimal language skills. I travelled in China shortly after it was really open to foreigners in the early 80s, and there was virtually NO english signage. When I lived in Taipei for a year in 1980, I just had to learn some important street names and the odd punch card fare system before my teenage self was navigating the city on my own. Just sayin'.

In any case, I'm glad Mpls finally built a rail system, and I'm looking forward to riding it and reading the signs in however many languages they end up using.

On Feb.21.2004 at 05:37 PM
brook’s comment is:

It seems like a lot of the basic info for a train system could be done without using any copy at all, or at least very simple language.

well, it's only the ticket machines, not the signage. pretty much the same as atm machines, which always have at least english and spanish. i've traveled quite a bit too, and didnt really have any problems.

I'm glad Mpls finally built a rail system

i wish that were true. they just have a rail line. mn has one of the worst congestion problems in the country, so i hope it's inevitable. but minnesota is starting to trend conservative...and very few conservatives like to spend money on transit.

On Feb.21.2004 at 10:55 PM
Armin’s comment is:

An interesting article on Brand Channel about targeting an overlooked segment of the hispanic market.

[Excerpt from the article]

While advertising that targets Hispanics has grown significantly over the past years, less than five percent of this advertising specifically targets the sub-segment of affluent Hispanics. These are consumers who care and have relations with brands. They buy the best foods, wines, clothes, accessories, cars, furniture and more; this segment is willing to spend and spend plenty. They are bi-cultural with a passion for experiences, pride in their roots, and a feeling of value for their lifestyle.

On Mar.08.2004 at 09:29 AM