Graphic design wields significant influence in conveying, expressing, and persuading. It possesses the ability to communicate messages, evoke emotions, and build deep connections with a consumer base. Nevertheless, without due consideration for its audience and context, graphic design can inadvertently foster misunderstanding, perpetuate stereotypes, and contribute to exclusion. Incorporating cultural elements can be a fun way to inject some personality into a project and appeal to a specific demographic but execute it poorly and it can result in disgruntled and offended consumers who reject your brand entirely.
If your project demands it, using some symbols and patterns from a target culture can help your design feel considered rather than cookie-cutter. Some well-used elements are so recognisable that we understand what they’re referencing without even having to be told such as tartan representing Scotland on a box of biscuits or red dragons on a Chinese takeaway box. In branding, relating to a group’s personal experience, culture or lifestyle will help those who relate to feel attached to your branding, this fosters a sense of brand loyalty before even trying the product.
Without proper preparation though you can end up with a design that seems insensitive and in poor taste. It’s hard to always know where the line is when trying to navigate creative designing with a core audience in mind, whether that be adherents to a culture, religion or identity, but asking yourself a couple of key questions can prevent any blunders.
Consider the following factors when planning your designs:
Have I been thorough when researching the significance of a motif, pattern or symbol? The most crucial aspect of designing with cultural motifs is to ensure you have done a comprehensive deep dive into your chosen culture before putting pen to paper metaphorically. There can be many images or symbols within a culture that may seem visually pleasing and get your creative juices flowing but before jumping in it’s important to ascertain whether it’s appropriate to use them in the context of your art.
Different colours, shapes and symbols can hold different meanings across cultures, a symbol may hold sacred value as part of a faith or perhaps may even have a derogatory connotation. For example, the colour black can be associated with mourning in many countries yet it is seen as a lucky colour in Ethiopia due to its association with rich soil. In Japan, the owl, known as “fukurou”, is considered a symbol of protection from hardship and suffering. It is believed to bring good luck and ward off negative energies but in some African cultures, the owl is associated with witchcraft and is considered a bad omen. The result of underpreparing can be as harmless as a lacklustre design to as controversial as a country wide product ban.
This aforementioned lack of sensitivity or awareness led sportswear brand Umbro to release a line of footwear called “Zyklon” in 2002, without noticing that it was also the name of the gas used by the Nazis in the concentration camps (Yikes).
Does my design accurately represent the people of my target culture? The easiest way to ensure you avoid a societal faux pas is to collaborate with people or designers from your target culture. You can use this approach to double-check that the colours, symbols, and language used in your artwork do not inadvertently clash with the culture you intend to appeal to.
You can still design with a respectful and mindful approach without being a part of your target culture but if you’re unsure if it’s appreciation or appropriation then it’s best to consult with a member of that community. This opens up your designs to perspectives outside of your own which can inform your work with the historical and social intricacies of a culture, making your work smart and striking rather than gauche and gaudy.
Here are a few great designs that intelligently combine culture with creative branding.