When reading about localisation on the internet, much of the discourse centres around websites and online content. The visual aspects of content and design seem to take a back seat.

In this article, I want to specifically draw people’s attention to the need localise images, pictures, logos and designs to ensure they come across well when used in an international context.

Is design really that affected by international differences,’ some of you might be asking? In short, yes. Just as content, websites, software, video games and apps need localisation – so does imagery. Why? Because it is loaded with cultural baggage; meaning all images in one way or another reflect the culture in which they were designed.

The issue with this, as with any sort of localisation, comes down to ‘assumptions’. By this I mean people assuming that others think, see, perceive and interpreter the world as they do. As all those who have worked internationally can attest to, this isn’t the reality. Cultures differ and one should never ever assume that something that works in one culture must work in others.

Let’s look at a nice little example from real life.  The South African Chamber of Mines had to fix certain Health & Safety issues faced by their employees. One such problem was keeping rail tracks clear of debris so that service was not constantly interrupted. Most employees were illiterate, so the decision was taken to give instructions visually.

Example of Visual Localization gone Wrong
Unfortunately, not very long after using this image above, management found that tracks were actually becoming more blocked that usual. Can you guess why? Correct! The miners were reading it from right to left! Who ‘assumed’ that they would read it left to right?

What the above example demonstrates is that cultural differences can impact the simplest of things when it comes to platforms of communication.

Although graphics and imagery do pose certain challenges, they do also present a massive benefit.

The stakeholders in the case study above were perfectly correct in deciding to use visuals to get across their safety message; it was the execution that let them down. When localising, images are actually a really effective way of avoiding getting lost in translation through the sole use of text or words – thus the expression, “a picture can speak a thousand words”. One only needs to think of the globally recognised ‘no smoking’ sign to appreciate its simple power.

When using images, pictures and graphics, designers need to think about the audience and how they will perceive them. Feedback or research is always crucial from natives prior to launch in any market.

So what are some common pitfalls that people need to be aware of when it comes to visual content?

Region Specific Symbols

information_iconTry to avoid the use of symbols and icons that might only make sense where you come from. Do you know that this symbol means? Well good for you but it doesn’t mean they will in China.  A simple way of ensuring your icon can be internationally recognised is to use only ISO approved symbols.


mouseDon’t try and be clever with verbal analogies. Using a picture of a mouse to represent a PC mouse might make sense at home but         abroad do they even call a PC mouse a mouse? Could mice have any cultural significance? Actually, while we are on the point, avoid animals altogether unless you research the associations within a country or culture and find them to be a positive.


red-in-chinaBe aware of symbolic meanings surrounding colours as they differ from culture to culture. The Japanese interpret red as anger/danger whereas the Chinese relate it to joy/festivities; we see it as danger! This doesn’t mean colour should be avoided; simply researched and used wisely.

Human Figures

human-figuresIf you want to use human figures or representations, be careful of where and how you use them. Some cultures may be sensitive to this; others could interpret images in their own particular ways. In the Islamic world for example, there are protocols around how both men and women are portrayed when illustrated. If using human figures try to go for neutral, simple outlines of people.


ok-signFollowing on from the above, hand gestures can also be tricky. One culture’s thumbs up is another ‘**** you’. Hands though are really useful when used alongside objects to illustrate how to open or operate something.

Patterns, Designs and Symbols

nike-allah-shoesIf using patterns or designs, make sure they have no cultural resonance or resemble anything that could cause you trouble. Nike have learnt this lesson the hard way; they recently launched a pair of leggings using a pattern considered holy to the Maori culture and before that released new running shoes with a design  that very closely resembled the Arabic word “Allah” – God.

As one can see, there are a few potential stumbling blocks to the use of icons, images, graphics and pictures internationally. However, this should not put people off using them. The message is, ‘use them but take care’.