By Michelle Barnett
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Design across cultures

This summer IKEA opened its flagship store in India.  As designers we’ve found the roll-out fascinating.  This Swedish archetype wanted to be received well in a country that’s both globally and culturally its opposite.  Three years of market research went into this move, and it’s been a big culture shift.  The Indian furniture market is not used to buying mass produced pre-assembled tables at all.  And on top of all that was the challenge of fitting a famously sprawling warehouse in one of the most densely populated countries on earth!

IKEAs first store in Hyperabad, India, which opened in July 2018

The design of IKEA’s products have interestingly remain largely un-changed.  However some things were adapted to include local materials.  Mattresses are now filled with coconut fibre.  This is both for familiarity and because it copes better with the scorching Indian summers.  A few local additions like masala boxes, tapas and pressure cookers are also on offer.

Crossing borders like this is becoming a lot more common for big companies.  So how do they avoid getting lost in translation?  You need to really get to know your new customers and their culture!

Language itself can be a stumbling block to design.  Europeans read from left to right, but Arabic speaking countries go right to left, while the Japanese prefer centralised columns that are read from top to bottom.  In his article about translation, Murraygm reminds us of the storyboard that, when read Western style, is about a refreshing drink of cola.  But its Saudi Arabian audience saw it as someone dying from poisoning!

Comic strip storyboard demonstrating the problems of using the same image to market a product to different countries

One of our own designers spent some time working in Holland.  She got used to seeing British ads shown with Dutch voiceovers.  Her favourite was hearing the tagline ‘Red Bull geeft je vleugelsl!’ (Red Bull gives you wings).  Seeing someone say one thing but hearing another, and not knowing if the translation was accurate, always felt odd.  “When I saw a human, with words being dubbed into Dutch, I immediately distrusted the ad.”

Dutch web banner ad for the energy drink brand Red Bull

This is one of the areas where we find illustration, and animation working better than filmed video footage.  You can tweak character design and mouth movements adjusted to match the new voiceover.  This means there’s no need to shoot new footage every time.

Even simple things like the meaning of colours need to be considered.  Kit Kat found that they were selling more chocolate bars in Japan during university exam season.  Red is associated with good luck there.  The nonsense word ‘Kit Kat’ also sounds very similar to ‘kitto katsu’, or ‘I’ll try my best to succeed’.  Japan now has shops entirely dedicated to Kit Kats, selling such bizarre flavours as watermelon, matcha green tea, passion fruit and ginger.  It’s become a national phenomenon!

Japanese packaging from the chocolate brand Kit Kat. This bar is wasabi flavoured

Taking your brand international can really pay off… for those willing to put the time into researching, adapting their brand, and getting to know the local culture. Good luck IKEA!

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