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Signs, Symbols and Social Media – Is There An International Visual Language of the Web?

When most people think about globalising a website and social media presence, they think about translating text.

Pictures and images it seems are universal.  Or are they?

While most of us respect the fact that in different countries people speak different languages, we still seem to find it hard to grasp that people can speak different visual languages in different countries also.

An exaggeration?

Not Really.  The UK and the USA may share English as a mother tongue but they don’t share a common set of road traffic signs.

Don't Walk

Don't Walk (cc) RandomWire

The red hand symbol has a particular meaning for a US citizen at a pedestrian crossing – “Don’t Walk” . But this meaning is largely unknown in other countries where English is also the official language. In UK and Ireland, for instance, the Red Hand is a political symbol – in Nigeria, an open hand facing palm out is a (very) insulting gesture.

Flag of The Ulster Nation

Flag of the Ulster Nation (cc) Wikipedia Commons

There is a wide spread misconception on the part of many marketers, designers and web developers that images and signs are somehow a global language that require no translation. “What works at home will work anywhere – won’t it? Afterall, we’re a global brand “. Or so the mantra goes.

Cross Cultural Communication with Signs


Restaurant Sign (cc) Creative Commons Project

The classic example is the notorious restaurant sign. It ‘s the textbook example, in fact.

The problem is that the vast majority of humanity eats food with chopsticks – not knives and forks. Something which is often overlooked in the Western, English-speaking part of the world.

“No problem”, pipes up the creative, “We’ll use an image with chopsticks to symbolise a restaurant for that market”.   A risky proposition if your designer doesn’t speak the visual language of your target market.  The nice image of chopsticks in a ‘V’ shape below symbolizes death in some, but not all, Asian countries.


Chopsticks (cc)TheBusyBrain

The bottom line – using a visual image as a metaphor for something else [e.g. knives and forks for a restaurant] is a very bad idea unless you speak the visual language of a country. And nowhere is this better illustrated than with the following example.

Flags and Maps

There is an increasing trend toward the use of national flags as navigational links to language versions of web pages on multilingual sites . But just because a lot of people do it doesn’t mean it is best practice. In fact, it could get you in a whole heap of trouble.

Flags as Navigation

Flag Eguals Language

Ask yourself, for instance, does the UK flag symbolise ‘pages in the English language’ or ‘pages for people living in the UK’? With the vast majority of English speakers living outside the UK, using a UK flag as the symbol for the English language will result in a lot of lost traffic if you are looking for English speakers – rather than people who live in England. In fact, both these readerships may be confused by what you mean by the UK flag symbol. Symbols are ambiguous where text isn’t.

Nor is it advisable to use a national flag to symbolize ‘pages for people living in a particular country’ a lot of the time.

Flag as Country

Flag as Country?

Taiwan (Chinese Taipei ) is only recognised as a country by one European state (The Vatican City) – the vast majority of UN members regard Taiwan as part of PRC China.  Using the unrecognised Taiwanese flag to link to Taiwan ‘Country/Region’ pages would almost certainly get your site blocked in the rest of China.

Countries which are multilingual also don’t fit this “national flag equals language/country metaphor” for the navigation scheme – it excludes countries which have more than one official language such Belgium, Canada, Spain, and most African countries. You end up having to make a choice between one official language or the other which ultimately will upset someone you are trying to be friends with, presumably.

Let’s Not Forget the Maps

Maps are also nice to look at but aren’t any safer than flags.

The Chinese government regard any map that shows Taiwan on its own without mainland China as offensive.  Pakistan and India still have active border disputes – famously and expensively forcing the re-release of Windows 95 as it contained a map which favoured one side over the other. Vigorous, unresolved border disputes are a commonplace – Vietnam/China, North/South Korea, Morocco/Algeria, the list is endless.

Using a map graphic which shows a political boundary is bound to upset someone somewhere who might block your site or at least decide not to buy your products.

Maps are a very risky metaphor to use.  So why take the chance?

Location Name List

Best Practice - Location List

So what should you do?

Best practice is still what it has always been – use the official name of the country in the native language as the navigation link to the localised pages – resist the temptation to use flags, maps or other symbols to represent countries or languages.  Using text is the least likely to cause offense, is better for usability and works best for SEO.

Is your Site World Ready, Visually Speaking?

All too often, making a site multilingual involves getting a translator to localize text .  The translator gets no input into – or may never see – the graphics or pictures used on a site.  Even though these images – so our marketers and designers tell us – are what create the biggest and most lasting impression on customers.

Isn’t it worth paying your translator to do a couple of hours review of your online pictures, video and other visual content? Better still, involve translators when you are designing your home country site and build a ‘world ready’ review into your next major online update.

Is your web site and social media content world ready, visually speaking?

I am an experienced international marketing and product localisation specialist with more than 20 years experience in European, Latin American and East Asian markets. Wide functional experience in international software program management and product planning, intranet and internet project management, international product planning and marketing management, training course development and delivery – as well as localisation project management. With 15 years spent working at Visio Corporation and Microsoft in Office, Exchange, HRD and Business Solutions divisions as an international program manager– I have also worked as a consultant with a leading online marketing communications firm and in the aviation training and third level sector.

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  • Anonymous

    Great simple tips that we can all adopt.

    I often shy away from slides altogether as very often they distract the audience. I particularly like “Consider your audience” so often I see presentations that our word for word (or slide for side) the same as previous presentations they did. One so called Social Media guru gives the same talk to schools as he does to businesses. Crazy stuff. Also not ending your presentation with Q & A is another great tip. Maybe I need to think my approach on that one?



  • Hi Collen. A useful post – thanks. I like the idea of pulling in all of the sense i.e. the more the better. That is something i will remember for my next presentation – thanks

  • Another tip I prefer is to relate your presentation with some real life experiences, it’s a good way to capture attention. Or if one doesn’t have an appropriate one, can always share about a story, a light joke.. it will brighten up the session surely. Surprise your audience but be relevant. I guess this can be included as ‘dare to be different’. 🙂 Thanks so much for sharing.

    Social/Blogging Tracker

  • Great tips. I especially like the one–“Pull in as many senses as possible.” I see a lot better use of images in powerpoint, but the really spectacular presenters can effective use props too. I think of Jobs, the Mac Air, and the envelope. That made an impact. Everyone was captured.

  • Great tips. I especially like the one, “Pull in as many senses as possible.” I think lots of people are getting the hang of powerpoint and rich images. However, the truly spectacular presenters I have seen lately effectively use props. Some examples: Steve Jobs, Mac Air, and the envelope. Dave Ramsey uses chains as he talks about debt.

  • Great tips. I especially like the one, “Pull in as many senses as possible.” I think lots of people are getting the hang of PowerPoint and rich images. However, the truly spectacular presenters I have seen lately effectively use props. Some examples: Steve Jobs, Mac Air, and the envelope. Dave Ramsey uses chains as he talks about debt.

  • nice read Collean,

    I love the dare to be different bit and never thought about the asking questions bit at the end in the way you describe , makes total sense ! will deffo be using your tips.

  • Rosa Murray

    Great Tips ! Straight to the point

  • Thanks, I always used that in sales – if I could get something into my clients hands, I would, it helps them remember the meeting down the road.

  • I use slides as reminders to keep me on track, but I never do the word for word thing – that is an unprepared presenter. The “different” slideshow I was referring to consisted of single words or photographs to illustrate each point. It was very, very effective.

    The Q&A is really important. We have all either given a presentation where a single audience member took us off message, or we have been in the audience and watched it happen. It’s a difficult one to deal with, how quickly do you cut them off, and how do you do it politely, but end the Q&A and then wrap up with a summary of your presentation. People remember the last thing they heard – let that be you!

  • That is a very valid point, personal stories used to illustrate your points get remembered better than simply issuing edicts. Thanks so much for your comment!

  • Hi Bill! You are right, that is something that Jobs does particularly well. So do the better presenters at Have you seen the presentation on TED by the scientist who had the stroke? It is really moving, and when she brings out an actual brain to illustrate her point, you can’t help but “get” it. Of course Bill Gates discussion about Malaria is also fun, when he releases live mosquitoes into the auditorium. Not sure the front row was happy with that demo!

  • Thanks Brian, glad I brought some value!

  • Hi Rosa, Thanks for reading!

  • Anonymous

    Hi Colleen. You posted some really great tips; some I had never thought of before. It makes sense why you shouldn’t end with a Q & A.

  • Anonymous

    Put your Q&A tip into action today at an Interview workshop. Many thanks.

  • Great! How did that work for you. Do you think it was effective?

  • Thanks for reading! Hope you can put some of my suggestions into use!

  • Anonymous

    Excellent points, especially about not ending with a Q&A. I have seen many presentations get out of control.

  • Anonymous

    Excellent points, especially about not ending with a Q&A. I have seen some Q&As get way out of hand, and that is the only thing I really remember about that particular presentation.

  • pat

    Good luck, from SC, patiofurniture1f

  • Anonymous

    Worked really well Colleen. Was great to recap at the end and finish with the key positive points.

  • SweetPanda

    Very informative! Thanks! Good luck and voted from SC!

  • Kelly Kennedy

    Excellent information – I’ll pass this along to my sales staff.

  • Wonderful tips we can all use, I like the idea of daring to be different, I shall think of this post when I perpare for my next presentation. Thank you.

  • Hi Colleen, “Most speakers focus on their message rather than on the listener’s need” I think that this is a wonderful point and well worth considering, to a large extent everything else follows 🙂

  • It really does. Presenting is all about fine tuning your message – actually putting together this article was great practice, I wanted it to be brief, to the point and full of value. Our presentations should be the same! If you focus on the listener, you will be golden!

  • Thanks Kelly, I am glad you found the article useful.

  • Hi Catherine, I am glad you were able to pull something from my tips. Being different and doing something unexpected will help your message be remembered.

  • jentamar

    Great article. I especially like the idea of appealing to many different senses.

  • Anonymous

    Great advice as I embark on my first ever PowerPoint presentation.

  • Thanks – intigued by the point about “Never end your presentation with a Q & A” – going to incorporate it in next presentation.

  • Good luck with your presentation. If you find yourself nervous at any point, remember, you are the expert on your topic, because only you know what you are going to be presenting. If you miss something, don’t worry, no one will know. If you really need to calm your nerves – yawn! (Before you get to the front of the room). The oxygen will relax you. Thanks for reading!

  • Please let me know how that works for you. After your Q&A, summarize your main points, then end with your call to action. You’ll be amazed by your results!

  • Welcome to Bloggertone Dermot! Will take in your advice on using the official name of the country in the native language, or even better, the official name of the language in the very language (tongue twister!).

  • Great tips Dermot,
    I have images of a landscape – wonder who I am insulting today… and who I will offend tomorrow!
    Thanks for sharing – lots of food for thought, be it noodles, french fries, sauerkraut or sushi 🙂

  • Very nice piece Dermot with some lovely illustrations. As GB Shaw said of the English and the Americans “Two peoples separated by a common language” – or a language not so common afterall. Would be great to see some examples of companies who are getting localisation right in the context of delivery of their international Social Media Marketing strategy – some benchmarks we could reference.

  • Depends on your presentation. If you present your product confidently then you’ll have them in the palm of your hand – you have to have faith in your own products.

  • Dermot, are you coming to the IIA Conference next week. Would be great if you could attend our Internationa Strategy Working Group session. Your input would be valued:

  • DermotQ

    I’d like to be there very much ,Una, but unfortunately I’m already booked to attend the Localization Conference which is the same day as the IIA conference. I look forward to seeing your post on the Strategy Working Group however.

  • Facundo

    Dermot, I’m working on a wireframe for a client at the moment and this article comes in very handy. I was about to fall into the flag trap…

  • Thanks Sian, it’s a very useful post, whether you are new in business or to double check you are a-OK! I also think, it should be an ongoing education, and it always amazes me that very few cashier agents know how to handle such a query; I’ve got so many blank look when asking, could I please get a VAT invoice for this purchase? PS, depending on where the readers who are reading this live, they should check as the legal letterhead requirements are not the same, from country to country.

  • Thank for the comment Frederique and for pointing out it’s different letterhead requirement in other countries. I hope it makes people more aware of what to look out for.

  • Excellent article that is so applicable to today’s business environment. Having been on the receiving end of a few negotiations that could have been used to script this article, I think the pertinent point is that you must be prepared to walk away. As difficult as this is to even countenance when every sale counts, being prepared to walk away helps both buyer and seller focuse on the cost of failure to each party if they cannot reach agreement. It can also minimise bullying from the buyers side if they are just playing hard-ball but ultimately intend to purchase. That said there are some Alpha male buyer types out there looking for some payback for the last few years and their ship has well and truly come in.

  • Very interesting thoughts here John. I’m in B2B sales and the way business is being done is definitely different. What I do is not a “high” ticket item and yet we still have to find ways to work with them and earn their business, especially since they’re bombarded constantly in my industry. For us, transparency, patience and empathy are key; all which work extremely well for us. This article intrigues me because I was wondering how the “big” boys and higher ticket market was fairing and dealing with things. Thank you for the information here, Iu2019m very appreciative!nu00a0nMuch kindness,nu00a0nElena

  • Denise Fay

    Elaine, great post. nnSo What? is a question I ask my clients all the time when it comes to them communicating with their customers. It really helps business owners to continually think about their message and what they’re selling. And why someone would buy from them. nnThose two little words are so powerful – they smack a mighty punch. nnDenisennu00a0

  • Thank you Facundo – and of course some clients don’t quite know what the problem is, so sometimes we have to help them see the wood from the trees 🙂

  • Derbhile – that’s a great story – same thing happened to me recently – that is the beauty of networking, especially the non-formal type – amazing what relationships and collaborations can happen when people don’t feel “threatened” or “sold to”.nnWhen we tie in with the emotions of our clients, it doesn’t really feel like selling on either side – more a collaboration (where money transfers of course)nnThanks for sharing a great story 🙂

  • I agree Niall and I believe “selling” does not deserve to be out on such a limb – when every interaction we have with others is a form of selling anyway.nnWe need a new term – no better man (you are hired by the way!)

  • They surely do Denise – and I really felt that message recently during your #31ways webinar with regard to copyright and sharing a message.nnEverything we do is a form of communication, so perhaps we should concentrate more on having the conversation in order to listen. I do believe it is the preferred approach for most buyers.nnHaving said that, some buyers just want to be “WOWED” so perhaps there is still a place for FAB selling after all 🙂

  • Johnogorman

    nnHi Elaine, nnnu00a0nnnInteresting and thought provoking article. nnnu00a0nnnI am coming at this from a B2B complexnsales perspective.nnnu00a0nnnFAB selling for many sales teams can bentough to move away from and it can result in having the wrong conversations atnthe wrong levels with inevitable consequences on conversion rates and stalledndeals. nnnu00a0nnnMost benefits are not worthy of discussionnat the buyers board table because they rarely impact on the bottom line atnleast not tangibly. Business impact is king. Buyers need metrics to justify whynthey are investing!! nnnu00a0nnnNow we all know it is more difficult to sellnbusiness impact because it requires getting access to information on thenresults achieved by others, some view of the results the buyer wants (their businessncase), selling to more number focused buyers and selling to buyers who are quitenoften sceptical of lots of questions from sellers. nnnu00a0nnnSelling with stories, sells the impact andnhelps counters the weaknesses of FAB. nnnu00a0nnnOf course having a view of the buyersnprocess also helps (ties into Niall point above) nnnu00a0nnnHope this adds to the conversation. nu00a0nn

  • Hi John,nthanks for sharing your insights – you make some great points. I would imagine stories ties in with demonstrating integrity, experience, expertise, ability to do the job/complete the project and of course the emotional connection also.nnI take your point about some buyers being skeptical about lots of questions. I truly believe the way business is being done is changing and Iu00a0 see less sellers and buyers with their arms so close to their chest.nnTraditional ways will always be there, esp with B2B, but I think the traditional buyer will not be my client (however, I am open to correction on this). nnWe at Mallow Open Coffee ( are trying out a new initiative – meeting with a Nursing Home to chat and share with the entrepreneurs of yesterday. It will be very interesting to hear what they think of how business is being conducted todaynnAnd as I mentioned to Niall, a new term for selling would be cool 🙂

  • At a network meeting today the guy giving the talk suggested we ask the person beside us how we can help them without trying to pitch any of our services to them…I’ve done this before, somehow when I did it today it made a difference, one person I spoke to said to me afterwards “I’ll be back to you, you are just the type of person I need to help me”.u00a0 nnAt @IrishSmiley’s event just over a week ago she said that the word “sell” comes from the Swedish word “to serve” and when you think of it like that it completely changes how you approach it.nnI’ve both done and had done to me the “so what” and it really does make you think about what you are offering your clients.u00a0 Lots of thought provoking today…keep it coming.

  • Mairead – what a great story :)nnI am thinking we need a new term for “Sell” so open to suggestions – something that is more obviously serving. I think the word alone can scare people off!nnThanks for contributing to the conversation, glad you enjoyed the post as it was aimed to provoke thought

  • Anonymous

    Elaine,nnYour post reminded me of a trend I have been observing both directly and from conversations with small business peers. When all is said and done, the person you are selling to is trying to imagine how he/she can benefit from what you offer and what budget line will pay for it. Asking questions and highlighting their answers (not yours) helps them see more clearly how you are the right person for what they need.

  • Very true Elli – thanks for sharing your observations. I feel now like I need to become a second skin for my clients to really feel and understand their needs lol.nnBut I wonder what happens when a client recognises that you have just reflected back their worst fears and insecurities. It would turn into a coaching session :-/

  • Kraig

    This is soo true! No matter who you are! you are selling something! nnI will be reading your other articles! Thank you!!!!

  • Dave Thomas

    Roisin,nI would also advise guys to remove any piercings that a client would see. I think when someone is on the clock they need to remember they’re representing the company and not themselves. Thanks for reading….

  • @04506e7b75e92d0cd51f3aa114e647ae:disqus @828482dfa045227e1a61ad34b8070ed3:disqus Hi Roisin, we have added “and men” in that sentece. This escaped the usual screening we make to posts nbefore they go live.

  • Hi Niall, I “like” the Facebook Page of http://gilchristandco.comu00a0u00a0too 🙂 I’ve been delighted to work with some accountancy practices who seek to add value to their clients and become more relevant & approachable. Thereu2019s a great accountant out there for everyone! ~ Helen

  • Great post Helen. People tend to associate accountants with bad news and hard work so we are avoided like a plague until absolutely needed. Sometimes by then we can only give bad news and need the client to do more work to get the info needed. Although if clients only communicated more through the year and spread the work throughout the year it wouldn’t be such a chore for them plus the accountant can be more proactive for their business rather than reactive and just picking up the pieces. If us accountants could be handled properly and not put off until last minute then clients would get far more benefit from us. Rant over 🙂

  • Precisely! Thanks Sian

  • Paddy Walsh

    Hi Helen, very good blog and very true. I had a client once who likened the “annual visit” to going to his dentist. It took a little explaining that he should clean his teeth and his accountant was more than a tax consultant.

  • The dentist, yes that about sums up the feeling of many! I think that when an accountant is aware of that feeling and can improve the relationship, with “a little explaining”, as you have done, that the problem just goes away. It’s a communication problem for many. Well done Paddy!

  • Gianni Ponzi

    It would be interesting to see HOW accounts are kept by business and it this is part of the “tailbacks” issue you outlined above.nnA poll on who uses actual accounting software vs the “receipts in a shoebox” model would be interesting.nnIt might even suggest one avenue accountants and business could focus on e.g better training, easier software etc

  • It would be interesting to see HOW accounts are kept by business and is nthis part of the “tailbacks” issue you outlined above.nnA poll on who uses actual accounting software vs the “receipts in a shoebox” model would be interesting.nnIt might even suggest one avenue accountants and business could focus on e.g better training, easier software etcu00a0

  • We are on our third accountant in 9 years, mind you, the first one didn’t last long as he was ‘inherited’.u00a0 I’ve recently changed to one who vows to help her clients understand their accounts. It’s early days but I’m not sure that it is going to happen. I’m also conscious that I am very much a less than ideal client in that I leave getting stuff to them to the last minute sometimes too although I do put everything on an excel spreadsheet that they provided me with.nu00a0

  • I am happy to report that Accountants nowadays are far nicer that 20 years ago. With the onset of Social Networking, it means they can really communicate with their clients and potential clients.nnMy biggest regret was not putting my accounts online, as potentially anyone could then work on my book keeping, providing me with greater choices. I agree that you have to be able to communicate well with your chosen accountant, and they should be proactive about future savings, rather than being happy to recreate the past, as you say.nnA good effort from both sides should improve the relationship, like any relationship 🙂

  • Info

    I wouldn’t agree entirely Helen. I provided my accountant with everything in the April, he still filed my accounts late and I incurred the fee. Obviously I wasn’t too happy and surprised in his professionalisum he didn’t offer to pay considering it was his mistake. Personally I don’t see why Accountants leave it to the last minute.

  • It can be hard to find the right professional…u00a0Next month’s article gives some tips on keeping in control of paperwork, so maybe that will help a little. Fingers x that your new accountant works out for you Lorna.

  • nnI’m delighted to hear that your experience of accountantsnis, in general, good. This month’s “Accountancy Ireland” has annarticle entitled “The Emotionally Intelligent Accountant” (!) andnit’s a sign that the profession is now recognising that accountants need tondevelop skills other than finance to properly service the needs of theirnclients.nnnIn relation to putting your accounts online, itu2019s neverntoo late! You should discuss moving package with your accountant firstu00a0though.nIdeally, you should set up reports and analyses in such a way that itu2019snmeaningful information for you and in a format thatu2019s usable for preparing the final accountsnas well. I always discuss client needs, logistics (how the business operates onna daily basis), and personal preferences with a client before setting up annaccounting system. Then itu2019s u201ctheiru201d system, they understand it and it doesnwhat they want, in addition to churning out VAT returns and producingninformation for accountants and auditors. u00a0nnnThanks Elaine & good luck with your accountant :)nnn

  • nnIu2019m sorry to hear that you had a bad experience. If younbrought in everything in April, it would seem that there should have been timento finalise your affairs. nnnNot all accountants are the same. There are good and badnaccountants in the same way as there are good and bad plumbers. I havenencountered a few accountants, (and other professionals), where the quality ofnwork and client service was poor. I wrote a post about it last year, u201cHiring anProfessional: 10 Tips for Spotting a Professional Turkeyu201d. for the comment, a valid point. ~ Helennnn

  • Great advice! Finding a great accountant is as essential as starting a business itself. The accountant is crucial since they keep tabs on all financial assets of the company. Whether using simple column pads or sophisticated accounting software, the skill of the accountant is measured in the smallest of details. n

  • I agree with you, it’s all about keeping the focus where you want it and avoiding distractions…

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