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Designing for a global audience: An interview with Senongo Akpem

Senongo Akpem brings his diverse background into his creative practice, aiming to reach international audiences.

Senongo Akpem cross-cultural design

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The modern web has made it easier than ever before to expand to new markets. Just translating a website or app into different languages in the hope it’ll attract new users in their masses, however, isn’t enough. Neglecting cultural differences can lead to confusion, frustration, and even offence. As a result, it’s crucial to acknowledge the unique cultural characteristics and business practices of all your users.

There are lots of examples. Colors have different connotations across cultures. If you’re in Japan and look at a map of the world, Japan is featured in the center, not over on the right like in American maps. Websites, meanwhile, are a lot busier and information-dense in some cultures, while in others, the design tends to be more minimalist with fewer calls-to-action. Some societies are individualistic, where users prefer messages and images of independence and choice. Others might be collectivist societies, where users prefer the knowledge of the group and the wisdom of the crowd.

Localization is therefore a key factor in connecting with international audiences. In fact, the way you design across cultures can make or break a product. It’s a topic designer and illustrator Senongo Akpem knows a thing or two about. He grew up in Nigeria, then spent a decade in Japan, and now calls New York home, bringing a global perspective to his client and personal work. For years, he has been passionate about implementing diverse, inclusive design strategies into his practice, and about the role culture plays in creating a richer experience for everyone on the web — regardless of location, language, or identity. Senongo has recently distilled his thoughts, research, and the lessons he learned into a book called Cross-Cultural Design, published by A Book Apart, an essential read for anyone who wants to build better websites for people all over the world and from different cultures.

We sat down with him to discuss the need to design with cultural sensitivity in mind and how to do so effectively.

Shaping Design: What is cross-cultural design?

Senongo Akpem: Cross-cultural design is a large topic, but one that is becoming increasingly important in the world today. The internet is connecting more people in more places than ever before — and yet many of us still design with only wealthy, Western audiences in mind. As designers and business owners, we know that our audiences extend well beyond single national borders.

People online bring a huge variety of languages, perspectives, and expectations about the web with them. I do believe that our industry wants to design effective experiences for these modern, multicultural audiences. But in order to do that, we must be eager to understand and meet the needs of global audiences.

That’s going to take a clear and accessible methodology, one that forces us to design across those cultures. My book examines the actions and ways of thinking that we need to [adopt in order to] do socially-conscious research, build culturally responsive experiences, develop meaningful internationalization and localization approaches, and create effective design systems.

Cross-Cultural Design book by Senongo Akpem

"The internet is connecting more people in more places than ever before — and yet many of us still design with only wealthy, Western audiences in mind. As designers and business owners, we know that our audiences extend well beyond single national borders."

SD: What are culturally responsive experiences, and how do you build them over time?

SA: Today [we see it as] a given that design responds to our devices, locations, and preferences. Back when responsive design started as a web standard, there was definitely a lot of experimentation, and some pushback, over layouts. Functionality also seemed to be endlessly arbitrary, and that tried to account for too many variables. But guess what? Now we take it for granted, and any site that is not responsive we can say is old or hasn’t been updated yet.

Now, as we have sophisticated code and workflows for responsive design on the front-end, I think we should expect sites to also be responsive to the facets and differences in culture. There are so many factors that affect how design is perceived in places with different cultural norms, as well as how visual and cultural diversity can be built into every stage of our projects.

SD: What inspired you to write this book?

SA: As they say, time is a flat circle. I gave my first “official” conference talk at Future of Web Design New York (RIP) in 2012. It was titled “Beyond Responsive Design: Culture as a Factor in Web Design”, and explored how we can use Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions model as a way to understand the role of culture in design. Now, all these years later, those same ideas made their way into the very first chapter of my book. So it's a topic I have been speaking and writing about for a while.

More fundamentally, however, as the role of the internet expands, and greater numbers of people come online, I think designers need to take a step back and really understand how to design experiences for people in different cultures, and who speak different languages. The choices we make have effects far beyond our cities and borders. I guess that's the power of the internet, so we need to try using it for good.

SD: What can happen when you design with (often unconscious) Western bias and don't take other cultures into account?

SA: A few years back, I had just started working at Constructive, a social impact design agency in New York, and I was looking through an icon set to try and find something to use for a project. It was one of those large Sketch files, with all the icons laid out thematically. I kept glancing at one in particular. It was an icon of a hijab, with another hijab upside down next to it. And it bugged me, you know? What does this icon mean? Why is it in the sports section of the Sketch file?

It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized it was not a hijab at all — it was a pair of scuba flippers! You have to understand. I grew up in Jos, a city in Northern Nigeria. It’s a predominantly Muslim city, and so I automatically associate that particular shape with the style of head covering that’s common there.

It's a simple, if funny example, but extend that out. When we create design systems that unconsciously replicate our Western cultural norms, like scuba diving and Bitcoin, we make it much harder for those systems to move across cultures and be usable for other people.

There is also a rich vein of content on marketing blogs about products that were introduced in a market but failed because the company hadn’t done their cultural research. For example, Pringles trying to sell bacon-flavored potato chips with the message ‘Ramadan Mubarak’.

Line icons of scuba flippers which resemble hijabs

SD: So you grew up in Nigeria with a Nigerian father and a Dutch-American mother, then lived in Japan for almost a decade, and now are in New York. How has that experience shaped you as a designer?

SA: Growing up as a biracial Nigerian kid with an American passport seemed normal at the time, but in hindsight it was quite unique, especially in Nigeria. For context, in the US, the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court Decision, which struck down laws against biracial marriage, had only happened about a decade before I was born. In Mkar, Benue State, where I am from, you could count the biracial kids on one hand.

There was a large missionary community, but they mostly cycled in and out. My mother was probably one of the few permanent residents who was not Nigerian. So me and my sisters are used to being third culture kids. We’re used to existing in that in-between, liminal space, where you are from multiple places and from nowhere at the same time.

My time in Michigan as a college student was also a completely new cultural experience. I took some graphic design classes, but it was only when I entered the printmaking department that I got the opportunity to study abroad in Japan. I returned there after college to work as a teacher but after a few years wanted to try something new. Working in Japan as a full-time designer can be tough, and doubly tough if you don’t speak and read the language perfectly. So that meant coming to New York, where there is a huge creative industry, and I think that was the right call!

So with each move, I kept finding myself in these different cultural environments, different languages, and social rules. And all of that has definitely informed the design work I do, and the way I try to create multifaceted experiences. I love it when a digital experience can be enjoyed and experienced by people from different cultures equally.

Senongo Akpem’s parents in the early ‘70s. “They were one of the first biracial marriages in Nigeria, and a couple of real badasses.”

SD: Can you share some lessons you learned from designing across cultures?

SA: My career as a designer really started while I was freelancing and running a little business in Japan. It was small potatoes, but I worked with a number of expats living there who needed digital and branding services. Finding ways to do multilingual interactive designs, way back before Sketch or Google Sheets, was certainly an experience.

I’ve been lucky to do a number of projects that work across cultures and languages. During my time at Constructive, we worked on the Air Quality of Life Index, an interactive site that uses pollution measurements around the world to tell you how much shorter your life might be because of dirty air. I was not heavily involved with this particular project (kudos to Doug Knapton for the award-winning design!). It was translated into Chinese and Hindi, two huge markets for this kind of information at the policy level.

In terms of lessons, I think the most critical is to acknowledge your biases and assumptions. You don't know a lot of stuff. Looking at your Behance feed, or a set of sterilized personas, is going to have you working with a false set of assumptions about your audiences. So my strongest advice is to be clear about what is your bias talking, and what is a clear piece of info about your audience. Then, create a set of questions to guide your design work and research.

SD: What are some of the pitfalls to look out for when conducting cultural research?

SA: It’s impossible to get away from your biases. They are ever-present. In the essay Non-Assumptive Research, Dorothy Deasy said:

"Assumptions disturb truth by distorting the questions, the answers, the findings and the analysis. Learning how to identify and segregate them is critical to successful research."

When we conduct cultural research, we first need to accept that we will look at things through a certain lense, and that impartiality is not really possible. Then, [we] take concrete steps to avoid that bias creeping into our work.

Deasy lays out what I think is an effective way to do this. Start by stating your assumptions — write them down, so there is a physical record. These are often when people on your project say “we know that X”. Next, take those assumptions and change them into open questions. So instead of [claiming], “we know that users go to their account page first,” we can say, “where do you go first?”

Note the framing? In the assumptive statement, it's all about what you know. In the question, it’s all about what the user or audience knows and thinks. This reframing forces us to get away from our biases, and instead prepare for what our users actually need. The open question (who, what, why, where, how, when) forces us to accept a variety of different answers, rather than a statement that closes off any further research.

SD: What are some techniques designers can implement to design for a truly global audience?

SA: Every designer should start by focusing on typography. Regardless of the culture or the language, your project will live or die by how you structure your text. If you are dealing with multilingual text, where you are handling, say, English and Hebrew, or Spanish and Korean content, start by researching the ways those typefaces work and their history, before you begin any layout work. The book Bi-Scriptual has been a real treat for me. It interviews typographers from around the world and explores how their craft adapts and changes in a multilingual world.

In the SurveyMonkey example below, note that while the Korean type appears larger, the CSS used for both languages is set at font-size: 44px/line-height: 1.2. Especially when starting out, it’s a simpler proposition to use consistent type sizes to keep things easy to manage. The header and subheader text looks more open on the English page, and tighter on the Korean page, but the line lengths and overall spacing are quite consistent.

The English and Korean versions of