A good design is immediately understood. But “understanding” varies between cultures.
Cultural design differences are often seen as cute anomalies that won’t ever matter for designers. At least right up until you’re given a contract for a design meant to run in a country you’re totally unfamiliar with. Here we listed a few surprising culture-bound designs that might be ordinary for some cultures, but surprising for others.
There are plenty of other culture-bound designs out there, shaping everything from the shape of everyday objects to public policy. Which of these do you find surprising?
6.) Chopsticks and toothpicks
That little divot at the back end of some toothpicks and chopsticks are intended for use as a handy rest for your implements.
Outside of East Asia, this kind of knowledge isn’t that widely known for the simple fact most people outside the region don’t really need a toothpick or chopstick rest because the need comes up so infrequently.
5.) Symmetric and asymmetric earphone cords
Asymmetric earphones, also known as “j-cord” earphones, are relatively rare outside of Japan. This layout has one side much longer than the other, where most earphones have cords of equal length. While they were commonplace in Western markets in the 2000’s, they were rapidly replaced in favor of traditional y-cord earphones, likely because iPods came with y-cord earbuds.
A lot of users outside East Asia and audiophile communities were annoyed with this layout, leading to many earphone models no longer being produced in this format. Which is a shame, because when used as intended, a J-cord design can easily keep pesky cables out of the way far more easily than a Y-cord, even without aftermarket clips and holders.
What is the “proper” way to use them? Simply hang them behind your neck. Now you don’t need to hold them or keep storing them in your pocket every single time you remove them.
When Americans visit Japan or Germany, there is inevitably a discussion of how advanced Japanese toilets are with their heated seats and automatic bidets and or how weird many German thrones are with their elevated shelves and extreme water pressure.
The Japanese obsession with technology and cleanliness makes the former easy to explain and even an outsider would be able to understand the rationale behind them.
German toilets however, take a bit more explaining. The shelf is there for inspecting “leavings”, and making it easier to collect samples. The comparatively immense flushing power also makes it less likely for your deposit to leave streaks in the porcelain. These features make some sort of sense given German culture values these small practical design considerations.
If you’re squeamish about things related to toilets, then you’re probably not going to want to get sick in France because of these not-so-little things.
In France, something as mundane as a sore throat is often treated with a suppository. France actually takes more suppositories than the rest of Europe combined. The rationale behind this is that suppositories allegedly work faster and because France is culturally less sensitive about things concerning the derriere. This makes it more of a challenge to find or market specific meds for oral use.
France may be unique with its relationship with suppositories, but they’re not too different from every other country that has set its own policies on pharmaceuticals.
One might think that medical practices would be universal, but different countries also have different kinds of medication available over-the-counter and by prescription, as well as different standards for dosage. What is considered dangerous in one country might not be considered as such in another country, or even the next state over.
2.) Urban planning
Different countries have different attitudes towards automobiles, pedestrians, and cyclists and urban planning policies (and the lack thereof) reflect this.
Minneapolis Downtown via photopin (license)
This has plenty to do with relative economic prosperity, but population density also plays a critical factor. Los Angeles and New York for instance, have markedly different densities, making cars impractical in the NYC, and a smooth mass transit system more important than it is in LA.
Also important is how a culture views democratizing transportation. Countries that don’t put much emphasis on this tend to have fewer or subpar mass transit systems to compared to those that do. The types of transport valued by a culture also influences urban planning. Check out this video on Dutch intersections and how they accommodate cyclists.
1.) The use of color
Finally, something not related to product, policy, and industrial design. Most UCreative readers know that different cultures associate colors in different ways.
Happy St Patrick’s Day via photopin (license)
In Western cultures for example, black is often considered to be the color of death and formality. In China it can sometimes represent wealth and good health. In the Middle East, black may also symbolize birth and rebirth.
Red can mean anything from passion to violence. Green can connote eco-friendliness for one group, but not for others. This whole topic deserves a post unto itself. Maybe several posts:
But perhaps more important are the implications of this. Brands that service different markets for example, need to accommodate those markets, and this can mean choosing a different color palette, or at least changes in how products and services are presented.
What you should know
While it might be fun to look at these and other different culture-bound designs, as designers it’s important we understand that our designs need to work within the context of the culture it is intended for.
The problem is further compounded when we consider trends in niche marketing. We are now past the era of mass production and are now in one of mass customization. It’s more important than ever to identify the specific quirks of each different market, as fewer people are now willing to settle for a “one-size fits all” solution.
What other culture-bound designs can you name? Comment below!