Culture Versus Design

While traveling through southern Poland during my vacation I couldn't help but wonder how much culture effects design. A question that I have wondered about many times and come up short handed in answering. I think it is one of the hardest, yet one of the most important questions a designer or marketer can ask themselves and the answer will be unique for every person that would honestly ask themselves it.

We in the western world have adopted an affinity for minimalism, many large companies have already re branded with this in mind or are in the process of doing so. A simple look at how successful Apple is would make you understand that yes, we love minimalism. Everything from packaging to web design to metro stations are designed with clarity, minimalism and whitespace. It is easy to say that we love it, or at least have accepted it as a good way to get the message across, quickly. We could also say that since Apple is successful, not only in the west but also in many other parts that yes, minimalism will work anywhere and we could be right, to an extent.

When we ask ourselves this question we come back to a fundamental idea of design (and marketing too). We are solving problems, not making art. Our designs can be beautiful yes, but the point of them is to solve a difficulty for the company, to create a bridge between the company and their customers, not to create for the sake of creating. When we understand that design isn't picking the color you like, but the color your customers will enjoy we can understand the question of how much culture effects design much better.

The question becomes harder if you haven’t visited a country outside the sphere of your country’s design style and culture. The countries in the west have pretty much a unified design style with little deviations along the way, some things you can only find in America and some things you will only see in Germany or France, but generally speaking, a company with a western style can be successful in all of them, but when you visit the small rural towns of a country outside of that sphere you realize that those people are used to something else.

So does that mean that a western, minimalist designed company wouldn't be successful in such a place? Yes, to some extent. People in such areas might not understand the message in the same way you and I might, they can even view it with inhospitality or outright fear of “imperialistic” views from another country. This might sound like I hold a grudge with the people living in these areas, but I don’t. I accept that their view of life is different and companies that are interested in such places should adapt to their culture to be more effective.

A minimalistic designed company would stick out, yes, but would their message be understood in the same way it is clear to us in the west? Would it strike the same way as it does to us? Visiting the southern regions of Poland I understood that people there have a different understanding of marketing than we do in the west. They are used to colorful billboards (and a lot of them!), they are used to flashy designs and pushy marketing, they are used to things we are not, and that is okay.

So how much does culture effect design? A lot, but we do not think about that in our every day life. What I understand as a solution to a company’s problem might not be the same as what a designer from another country sees because of the role culture and society played in their upbringing. To create the most effective design solution for a company we must adapt to the area in which it want to be successful and understand the people of that region. Demographical research can not only be what we are used to in our region because we must understand a different culture and that means that age and spending power doesn't show the entire story.

The story of the people we want to influence is what culture is and understanding the meaning of their culture is what creates a successful design, a effective design.

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