Design for communicating across cultures

What distinguishes New Zealand design? While it is impossible to generalise about the broad span of New Zealand design, there are symbols and colour palates that appeal to our sense of national identity.

There are symbols that stand in for Kiwiness: the kiwi, the jandal, the pohutukawa in bloom. There are colour palates that we tend to prefer, often blue and green, referencing the clean, green image that is part of our national self-image, or, the use of white on black, referencing the prowess of the All Blacks rugby team.

Other nations have their own distinctive preferences.

For Kiwis, black conveys power, authority, sophistication and national patriotism. But in China, black would never be used as a background colour or to frame a photograph: it is too strongly associated with death, funerals and bad luck.

“I would only use black and white as a design choice with a great deal of soul searching,” says Lee Jensen, a lecturer in the School of Design at Massey University.

Back when New Zealand was a less culturally diverse nation, considerations like these did not matter very much if you were communicating within New Zealand.

But the composition of the population is changing. In 2013, 12.2 percent of New Zealanders identified themselves as ethnically Asian; according to Statistics New Zealand projections, by 2038 it will be 20.9 per cent.

We need to become more culturally aware in the way we communicate.

For Jensen, this means that more emphasis than ever must be placed on the design process: on research, consultation and testing.

“When we teach our students, we can’t equip them with an understanding of how every culture deals with design, but we can send them out there with the ability to ask the right questions.”

The ActivAsian example

Auckland’s North Shore is at the forefront of demographic change in New Zealand. While Statistics New Zealand has projected that by 2038, around 20 per cent of the New Zealand population will be Asian, on the North Shore region, the figure has already passed 24 per cent.

So when Jenny Lim of Harbour Sport was asked to promote the sports participation programme ActivAsian, to parents Chinese and Korean communities, which are the programme’s targets she set out to make sure that the messaging and the presentation were tailored to their cultural values and design preferences.

Chinese-language ActivAsian promotional brochure

The Chinese-language ActivAsian promotional brochure uses the culturally auspicious colours of red and yellow.

One of ActivAsian’s objectives is increase the participation of children in sport and exercise, countering the parental perception that time spent sport is time that would have been better spent studying.

“We developed this around 2009 or 2010,” says Jenny, bringing out an orange-red pamphlet. “The whole thing is the result of community consultation.”

Jenny canvassed opinion on the best approach by handing out questionnaires at the local Chinese and Korean New Year Festival.

“We asked, ‘What are the barriers that are stopping you and your children from playing sport?’ ‘What sort of thing appeals to you?’”

Korean-language ActivAsian promotional brochure  

The Korean-language ActivAsian promotional brochure uses the same colour palate as the Korean national flag: red, blue and white.

The result is two pamphlets, one in Korean and English, the other in Chinese and English.

They present the arguments for sport and exercise participation in ways that appeal to the values of Asian New Zealanders.

Sport and exercise has been shown to lead to better concentration, memory, and classroom behaviour and to feelings of well-being; it builds friendships and interpersonal skills; it enhances confidence.

The two pamphlets use the colour palates preferred by each culture: red and yellow for Chinese readers and red, blue and white for Koreans.

Some Chinese and Korean colour-associations

The following are generalisations that will vary in their relevance across regions (for example, Taiwan and Hong Kong have had different histories to mainland China) and between generations.

White, while associated with positive qualities like purity by the Chinese (as it is by Westerners), is also associated with funerals and mourning.

Black, which in West is seen as embodying authority and sophistication (along with associations with death and evil), should not be used as a background colour for a Chinese audience, for whom it has generally negative associations. Black is worn at Chinese funerals.

Blue, which in the West is often used to represent trustworthiness and authority, means different things to different audiences. For Chinese, Navy blue is seen in very much the same way that black is: as a negative colour. Blue lettering features on the white lanterns sometimes given out at funerals. For Koreans, blue has more positive associations. Red, blue and white are the colours of the national flag, with the red and blue symbolising the complementary forces of yin (positive) and yan (negative).

Red is associated with celebration and is an auspicious colour in China. Chinese brides often wear red. However, in Korea (and Japan) red is also used to write the name of the deceased: never use red ink for the name of a living person.

Yellow, the colour of gold, is often associated with abundance and prosperity in China. Often red and gold are used in combination.

Green, the colour of jade, is associated with prosperity and health in China. However, a green hat implies unsavoury things about the wearer’s immediate family.