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Just like every country has a spoken language of their own they also have a visual language and it may surprise you to know that the associations you have with colors shapes and so on are the complete opposite somewhere else.

One association I think is hilarious is that of blue and red in politics (in the U.S.) red=right and blue=left because in the meanwhile in the rest of the world the opposite is true.  So, you get hired by a political party in Europe to design a campaign and you give them something that is just perfect….for their rivals, ha!

Sometimes you can easily see where the associations and meanings came from. The red for the left obviously arises from communist countries adopting red for their flags etc, but then you get these completely unexpected colors like purple for the anti-monarchy party in Spain…considering purple was always the color of royalty (in Europe at least) Except of course Netherlands, their royalty was all about orange, but use orange in Ireland and you are pissing off the Irish republicans (it is the color of the British unionists, that’s why the flag has a white band between the green and orange, white=hoping for peace between those two, ouch)…and the list goes on with colors.

But…

At least we can all agree that swastikas are bad.  Except if you are in Asia where they can symbolize peace, the universe and all sort of warm and fuzzy feelings or for some Native American tribes where the meaning can be a spiritual migration or a symbol of astronomical reference. In short, even things you just knooooow mean one thing, probably mean something diametrically opposed elsewhere.

I find this stuff to be fascinating but more importantly it serves as a reminder of the fact that I do not speak the visual language or every target and that before drawing the first line, choosing a font or selecting a swatch, our job as designers is to figure out who the hell we are trying to reach.

Once you know who they are, you figure out what their visual language is, go as deep as you can, try to learn not just the meaning of colors, shapes, etc but the etymology…where does that come from? Why? By answering these questions, you get a richer perspective on the target audience and this understanding will make all the difference in the world.

Think spoken language

If you think about it in terms of spoken language it goes something like this…You are asked to write a speech about monkeys, so naturally you write it in English only to find out the target audience speaks Spanish, so you rewrite it in Spanish, right? The thing is there are give or take about 20 different countries that speak Spanish, each with their idioms and flavor and nuances…I mean, the word bicho can mean bug, critter, penis or naughty depending where you are. If you meant to tell the audience how these cute critters climb trees but end up telling them that…well you get the idea. 

On top of that, each of these countries is also subdivided like any other place, there is formal, informal Spanish, there is a difference if you are addressing teenagers or adults and the list goes on. So, you can write about monkeys in “Spanish” and yeah, they will probably understand what you are saying, but will they feel what you are saying?

Now take all that and come to grips with the fact that spoken language behaves pretty much the same as visual language. The moral of the story is this, find out who you are talking to, and adopt their way of communication before you even think about turning your computer on or picking up a pencil and the results will probably surprise you.