Images, Illustrations, and Icons

When choosing images, illustrations, and icons for a multi-cultural website, it’s important to consider whether they are culturally appropriate and sensitive. Certain images or symbols may have different meanings or connotations across different cultures, so it’s important to do research and choose visuals that are inclusive and respectful.

Within a singular culture, icons, images, and illustrations can be challenging to select because people interpret what they mean using their own personal filter and cultural lens. Conduct research to uncover issues and use globally accepted icons to avoid confusion.

Select universally understood icons

Icons have become highly commoditized and it is common for teams to use pre-designed icon kits. The challenge is that those kits don’t always consider cross-cultural needs. To avoid this: (1) Use good ethnographic research to identify and eliminate icons that are culturally confusing or dangerous. (2) consider leveraging the icons published by the United Nations’s Noun Project. It includes 295 humanitarian icons that have become a globally accepted design language for a wide-variety of humanitarian concepts.

Avoid stock photos

Target cultures prefer to see images that reflect their identity and cultural norms. Where possible, avoid western-focused stock photography. Stock photos are difficult to get right normally, but accounting for cultural diversity makes it even more challenging. Most stock photos have WEIRD people in WEIRD situations (western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic). It’s best to get your own pictures, but if you have to use stock photos, try a library like Tonl. [5]

Notice cultural markers

Cultural dimensions (like individualism vs. collectivism or uncertainty avoidance) should inform which images might work best. Don’t pick images that go against the audiences cultural norms.

Offer relevant versions

Switch images based on location and regions. Users prefer to see faces, images, and other content that visually reflects their identity. Also, pay attention to variances within a region. For instance, even within countries there can be variations in skin color (lighter hues vs. darker hues) and ethnicity. Be sure to match the variations of the market you are serving.

Beware of historical cues

Do research to understand the history, pivotal events, and cultural movements that have shaped the country. That way, you don’t unintentionally run into challenges. For example, nostalgic photos of America often represent traditional families in quiet neighborhoods with manicured lawns, This may appeal to white, heterosexual, middle-and upper class members of the Baby Boomer generation. The same era, however as a dark, negative connotation for marginalized groups. ****


See the full Cross-Cultural UX Design resource.

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