Global May 3, 2010 Last updated May 9th, 2011 2,264 Reads share

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

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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 (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?

Dermot Quirk

Dermot Quirk

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