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Cultural & Historical Influences on Design


Over 4.6 billion people, or around 60% of the world’s population has access to the internet in the current day and age. That is a tremendous amount of information available to a lot of people all over the world. However, how we view, process, and interpret this information depends on many factors. As a whole, any information we view is processed by us through our culture. Before we get onto how culture influences design, let us revisit the term culture”.

Culture is an umbrella term which encompasses the social behavior and norms found in human societies, as well as the knowledge, beliefs, arts, laws, customs, and habits of the individuals in these groups.

Cultural influences on design is not something new. It started with evolution of human being. Cultural influences on consumer behaviour is what captured the interest of the design world.

Cultural differences tell us that while some designs can scale the culture barrier and be perceived as cross cultural, not all designs can work that way. Design and culture function in two diametrical ways. Design in some ways is universal, understood by all without the need of any explanation or context. Take a no smoking sign for example. It is a symbol that is the same across languages and countries. We barely need any context to explain it.

On the other hand, cultural differences can change the way design is perceived. Look at this video to understand high-context cultures like China. Visually, colors and symbolisms have different meanings across cultures. White in Western cultures is a sign of peace and purity. In others, white represents mourning and sadness. If we were to design an ad or marketing campaign for a particular country, or even a particular region, we would sorely miss the mark if we weren’t aware of the cultural context of these symbolisms and colors.

UI/UX Design and Culture

Designers might have strong views in terms of how art does not equal design but design is not immune to the influence of art and culture. As a UX designer, a thorough understanding of culture is imperative, especially while designing UX for localized users. This encompasses a deep understanding of the demography, local trends, and practices of the people you are designing for. Languages like Arabic and Persian are read from left to right. Traditionally, Chinese texts were written in vertical columns which were read from top to bottom, right-to-left; the first column being on the right side of the page, and the last column on the left. These cultural nuances become important information if you want to design effective UX. The impact of the design will be deep rooted, while helping your users gain more out of the end product.

We can also take UI design as an example of influence of art and culture. The minimalist movement that began in the 1950s was limited to the arts but gradually permeated homes, workplaces, and even the inner workings of people’s lives. In the words of Marie Kondo “Discard everything that does not spark joy.” The effects of this larger movement which was defined by “intentionality” has clearly made itself seen in user interface design. Keeping screens clean and clutter-free, discarding every click, button, and feature which isn’t absolutely necessary, and having only that which is absolutely essential. It seeped down from something that started in an art movement and permeated design and how we interact with different products.

So the next time you start a new project or design, take a moment to appreciate all the influences that design was shaped by.