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Cultural Dimensions of Visual Communication


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Title: Cultural Dimensions of Visual Communication

Cultural Dimensions of Visual Communication We
live and communicate in both global and local
contexts, consequently the world in which we live
is both large and small. It is peopled with
those similar to us and quite different from us
in language, culture and communication habit.
Each person is shaped by a unique combination
of inheritance and experience. People in the
same community or environment share many
experiences and learned patterns of behavior
which become so familiar that they may be unaware
that other groups have very different systems.
Culture is often thought of and composed of the
products of a civilization Art, music, dance,
literature, architecture, clothes, foods, and
festivals. These are the aspects of culture which
can be discovered through the senses and are
obvious sources of discussions, delight and
comparison. Designers can communicate much more
effectively if they learn about the culture they
wish to communicate with. An example http//desi
By learning about a culture a designer can begin
to know what is significant to that culture. The
Aborigines who live in the Western Desert of
Australia make wonderful paintings. These
paintings, filled with wavy lines, circles, and
curves, are decorated with hundreds of small
dots. To outsiders, the pictures are beautiful
patterns filled with color. But to the
Aborigines, these patterns tell stories. The
stories are about their ancestors from long ago.
The stories are called Dreamings. Dreamings are
an important part of the values and beliefs of
the Aborigines. Some of the stories are sacred
and can only be shared with Aborigines. Other
stories can be told to everyone. When an artist
paints one of these stories, he will tell us what
the painting is about. One design that we start
to recognize is the large circle with smaller
circles inside. This pattern usually stands for
a camp site. Another design looks like a squiggly
wave. It usually means water or rain. The land on
which Aborigines live is very important to them.
Their designs often stand for things about nature
and the earth.
Social Symbolism In many traditional societies,
marriages were arranged by parents or other
elders. Sometimes the young people involved could
turn down a marriage they did not want, but other
times the couple had no choice at all. Most, if
not all, cultures have kind of symbol system to
show whether a person is married or single. In
Canada and the USA, most common is the use of
wedding and engagement rings. Among traditional
Mennonites, if a door is painted green, it means
there is a daughter eligible for marriage. The
Zulu people of Southern Africa developed a
complex code using colored beads.
In Zulu tradition adulthood comes with marriage,
and married people have advantages over those who
are not. This created a major incentive for young
men to gather enough wealth to purchase what was
required as marriage goods. Traditional wealth
was measured in cattle, and only a man with
enough cattle could afford to marry. Young
girls learned bead work and the meaning of the
symbols and colors used from their older sisters.
The bead work was usually worn as a head or neck
band. Men depended on female relatives to explain
the code. They can see whether a woman is
engaged, married, unmarried, has children or
unmarried sisters. The patterns and colours can
also tell what region a woman comes from and what
her social standing is.http//www.edunetconnect.c
Ways of problem solving, conversing, building
relationships, making requests are all learned
from childhood and reinforced and adapted through
experience. By observing parent, siblings, and
peers as they interact we are not only establish
patterns of behavior, but sets of values and
beliefs. Workplace groups establish their own
set of norms influenced by roles, academic field,
status, funding tasks etc. Rules of
behavior become so well established and
internalized that we may never be conscious that
our own 'culture' is not universal. These
learned rules, values and beliefs become 'the
software of the mind' (Hofstede, 1992) or the
filter through which we interpret events around
us. The proliferation of the media as an
environment of information is prompting new
questions about the role of visual images in
reflecting, creating, and communicating cultural
values, history, and national and community
identities. B. Edwards
Communities are increasingly not only in contact,
but are interdependent for communal well being
from sharing resources and trade to sharing
ideas and human values - from sharing aid during
disaster to sharing common visions of a future.
/is_200301/ai_n9178239 Content Communication
design is central to the global information
society and the global economy. What cultural
factors are involved in constructing a design
strategy that can withstand the demands of global
markets? How does the meaning of an image change
according to its cultural context? Communication
design is a global industry, increasing its power
along with the increasing movement towards global
economic integration. With this change, new
models of business, professional practice and
communication have emerged. But so have new
political and ethical dilemmas, particularly in
relation to global advertising and the commercial
strategies of multi-national corporations.
Country-specific symbols include anything that
portrays a way of life or culturally specific
knowledge. For example, in Arabic cultures the
use of pictures of men, women, and animals is
discouraged, while elaborate text in a
calligraphic style is acceptable and liked.
Furthermore, use of visual metaphors (star,
crescent, cross), animal figures, religious
objects and signs, taboo words, graphics of hand
gestures, aesthetic codes, forbidden food (beef
in India), may need a detailed inquiry of the
specific culture. Icons can be very
country-specific. When analyzing a Website
special attention is needed to know whether the
icon is understood in a particular culture. For
example, the icons of a yellow school bus, or a
red hexagonal sign, and an American mailbox with
a flag may not be well understood outside the
U.S. Thus, when using icons on the Web,
country-specific understanding is needed.
In a cross-cultural communication situation the
choice of symbols is particularly complex because
the symbols must be culturally acceptable to the
audience as well as the designer. In other
words, designers are sometimes inclined to make
decisions based solely or primarily on their
aesthetic judgment. They may find themselves
proposing design solutions that reflect their own
culture and exhibit little sensitivity to the
nuances of symbols and colors used in other
cultures. In instrumental communication, such as
advertising, designers must also be aware of the
appeal of their visual messages to the targeted
audience and also consider the functional
requirements of the message objectives. In
cross-cultural communication, however, the
aesthetic and functional decisions are further
impacted by the cultural filters of both the
communicator and the audience. http//spot.colorad
The Problem Imagine you are a designer who has
been asked by a local McDonald's owner to develop
a poster and other visuals for a Hispanic
Heritage program for that store. The store wants
to emphasize its sensitivity to the local
Hispanic culture of both customers and employees
who come from the surrounding neighborhood. The
designer developed a poster proposal featuring
Picasso's Don Quixote and the manager questioned
whether this was an appropriate symbol for the
local Hispanic community, most of whom traced
their roots to Mexico rather than Spain. The
problem the designer faced was determining what
symbols and colors could be used to communicate
visually in a way that depicted the Hispanic
community with sensitivity, at the same time
communicated in an interesting way to
non-Hispanic people about the culture.
Cross-cultural communication can be either
one-way or two-way. In one-way communication,
such as advertising, one culture, usually a
dominant or majority one, communicates to another
which is a subculture. I In the McDonald's case
a company run largely by white middle-class
Anglos was attempting to develop a message for
Hispanics with which it does business. In
two-way cross-cultural communication, the symbols
that are appropriate to use in communication with
the subculture have to also communicate
effectively about the subculture to the majority
culture. In other words, the colors and symbols
are appropriate and deliver meaning for both the
subculture and the majority culture. In the
McDonald's example, that means that the design
package must also be appealing and communicate
just as effectively to the Anglo employees and
customers who will also see the poster. It
should also be noted that cross-cultural
communication projects are sometimes location
specific. A specific Korean-American community,
for example, may share a general set of
culturally nuanced symbols with other
Korean-American communities, but it may also be
different in its view of the appropriateness of
specific symbols because of its history and
traditions. That is particularly true for the
tremendous variety of distinctive cultures
loosely identified in the U.S. as Hispanic which
includes such source cultures as Puerto Rican,
Cuban, Mexican, and Spanish, among others. The
confusion also lies in the terms we use for these
groups such as Hispanic, Chicano, Latino, and
Mexican American, terms which also carry nuanced
The Concept of a Cultural Palette In order to
better assess the cultural acceptability of
design symbols, the concept of a cultural palette
has been developed to assist the designer in the
development of culturally sensitive symbols. A
palette is the board on which an artist mixes
colors, but the word is also used to refer to the
range of colors used in a particular
painting. The idea of a cultural palette was
developed by the author and a graduate student
who used it as the focus for her master's thesis.
(Sandra E. Moriarty and Lisa Rohe, "Cultural
Palettes An Exercise in Sensitivity for
Designers," Journalism Educator, Winter, 1992, p.
32-37.) It is a method to develop a set of
culturally sensitive set of symbols and colors as
well as other graphic elements such as layouts
and artistic styles which may reflect cultural
The Assessment Process In general, the procedure
involves first compiling an image bank of symbols
and colors. These materials can be accumulated
from books, magazines, brochures, advertising,
packaging--or any other source of graphics that
are targeted to that group--as well as from
interviews with cultural representatives. Then a
panel of experts is identified who will review
the image bank and identify the ones that are
good (appropriate and inoffensive) and poor
(inappropriate and offensive) symbols and colors.
The final step is to create the palette of
colors and symbols that provides a range of
culturally sensitive graphics at the same time
identifying the insensitive or inappropriate
colors and symbols that need to be avoided.
Subculture Images. For the local part of the
study, the research analyzed the packaging and
merchandising of American products and products
with Spanish language labels in grocery stores in
the Hispanic neighborhood. Other sources included
Spanish language publications available within
the community, interviews with local Hispanic
media representatives, Hispanic art in museums or
books, and discussions of the subculture's
graphic code in other articles and books. The
Spanish labeled products used the same color
palette as the American foods-red, green, yellow,
and brown. Most of the designs were bands of
color with type. Typically the packages used very
little artwork and few symbols. One package used
a green bowl with flames coming out of
it. Interviews were conducted with Hispanic
community representatives, media executives, and
university specialists. More specifically, the
eight experts consulted for this study included a
specialist in Latino culture at the Museum of
Natural History, an advertising executive who
owns an agency that specializes in Hispanic
advertising, the editor of a Spanish language
newspaper, the owner of a Spanish language radio
station, the research director and a policy
analyst for the Latin American Research and
Service Agency, the research director at the
BuenoCenter for Multicultural Studies on campus,
and the director of Chicano Studies.
Image Bank Creation and Evaluation. These two
sets of symbols and colors were compiled and
presented visually as an image bank. Most
appropriate colors green, red, and white (the
colors of the Mexican flag), yellow, brown, and
orange. Least appropriate colors black, purple,
turquoise, burgundy, gray, sand, mauve, and
pastels. Blue, the color that dominates most
appeals to Anglos, is rarely appropriate
according to these experts. (Note that this list
includes the Taco Bell color palette.) Most
appropriate symbols anything that says "familia"
such as home and hearth, chili peppers (symbols
for traditional cooking but also the red and
green relate back to the flag), and circles
(hands and arms interlinked reflect back to the
family or home motif). Also the historical Aztec
and Mayan symbols were identified as appropriate.
The Spanish language itself was identified as a
positive symbol with suggestions that Spanish
words can be used as graphic markers. Least
appropriate symbols sombreros, cactus, donkeys,
man sleeping against a cactus, Frito bandito and
Juan Valdez (the experts did not approve of any
symbol that signified peasants, bandits, or
outlaws). Southwest images, such as pueblos, and
Southwest colors were declared to be more
representative of the American Southwest than
Mexico. http//
The growth of the Internet as an international
communication medium raises new issues and
challenges for the standardization or adaptation
of international marketing communications. The
Web, on one hand, is globally accessible and
capable of mass communication (Hassan
Blackwell, 1994). On the other hand, the Web
attracts information savvy 'inter-market'
segments, is inherently interactive, and is
capable of high levels of customization (Hassan
Blackwell, 1994 Ju-Pak, 1999 Sheth Sisodia,
1997). This leads to the questions 'Are
standardized or adapted Web-sites more effective
at attracting and keeping global
consumers?' Cultural values have a significant
effect on communication. They provide broad
guidelines for acceptable ways of behaving and
acting in particular situations (Feather, 1995)
they influence how we interact and socialize with
other members of society (Rokeach, 1973) they
affect the valences we attach to different
situations (Feather, 1995) and they are a
powerful force shaping our motivations,
lifestyles, and product choices (Tse, et al.,
1989). In essence, cultural values represent the
most basic and core beliefs of a society, and
these beliefs largely influence our communication
Culture-Related Design Criteria One example of
international advertising research is Okazaki's
and Alonso's (2003) comparison of 150 websites of
Japanese multinational companies in Japan, Spain,
and the USA. These were analyzed by analogy
with a classification of advertising appeals into
"soft sell" appeals (indirect approaches creating
emotions and atmosphere by visuals and symbols)
versus "hard sell" appeals (direct approaches
highlighting product features with explicit
information and competitive persuasion). In
general, the former advertising appeals prevail
in High-context cultures whereas the latter
prevail in Low-context cultures (de Mooij, 1998
Mueller, 1996, 2004). Accordingly, the Japanese
websites analyzed revealed the highest rate of
soft sell appeals, whereas the US websites
revealed the highest rate of hard sell appeals
and vice versa the Spanish websites revealed a
nearly equal rate of both appeals.
Figure 6. General relation between creative
strategy and communication styles (Context has to
do with how much you have to know before you can
communicate effectively.)
High-context cultures, which according to Hall
and Hall (1990) are often characterized by a
"Polychronic" time orientation. In Polychronic
cultures, time is often regarded as circular and
repeating, subject to social relationships or
needs and therefore handled in a flexible,
imprecise way. Action chains are structured in a
less detailed way and interrupted more often
since many things are done simultaneously.
Polychronic appropriate websites include lots of
entertaining visuals, animated illustrations, and
even real multimedia elements. Explicit
navigation support is rare since neither a
strictly ordered route through the less detailed
site structure nor very quick orientation is
necessary. Implicit symbolic cues, however,
support an intuitive navigation, which enhances
both preferred entertainment appeals and positive
affect in website use.
This, for example, is demonstrated above with the
homepages of Coca-Cola USA (Monochronic
http// in contrast to
Coca-Cola Italy (Polychronic the latter also
includes sound effects - http//
Designers can benefit from learning more about
the culture they seek to communicate
with. Research about the culture provides a
thoughtful base from which to work and create
meaningful messages.