Visual Faux Pas Explored

Award-winning graphic designer and writer Jessica Helfand, a founding editor of Design Observer, has suggested that graphic designers need to be cultural anthropologists. We should be aware of humankind in general, whether it’s our own culture, or the culture of others. There are circumstances wherein a designer believes in said role, but may not have taken the time to develop cultural awareness around it, looking at it from all angles, and interpreting it as other cultures may see it. And in a day and age when graphic design spreads far and wide thanks to the internet, our design likely will be seen by people in other countries and by wider audiences, regardless of whether we intended it.

But that wasn’t always the case. Paula Scher, a partner at Pentagram, has been in its New York City office since 1991 and has developed design solutions for a broad range of clients, winning accolades and awards around the world. Scher weighed in on how her design process used to function: “In the 70s and 80s, I made hundreds of record covers that were sent all over the world, and are still out there. We tested nothing, were totally uninformed about the various countries they went to, designed things the way we wanted to and never had a problem with that.” Today, things are very different, says Scher, who spoke about how most of the work coming out of Pentagram is vetted, especially “if it’s [for] a giant global company.”

IDEO has its own vetting process, too, rooted in research that identifies the problem, solution and audience. Belmer Negrillo, design lead at IDEO San Francisco, suggested that empathy should play a role in the design process: “The problem is that most faux pas are [a] consequence of not considering other groups that are not the intended recipients of the product or message. For that matter, we need to be, at least, culturally and morally aware of the main sensitive areas of our time and of the main generations alive. For example, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender differences, natural catastrophes and tragedies are themes that we need to be extra mindful about.”

Negrillo explains how IDEO’s Design Thinking process factors into this mindfulness: “IDEO’s methodology is based on Design Thinking. Proper Design Thinking is rooted in field research aiming to develop empathy with the people that may use the product or service you are creating. This method, by definition, considers cultural nuances and iteratively validates assumptions through testing with prototypes. Not surprisingly, often the most innovative ideas are based on insights on the sociocultural specifics of a demographic group.”


Art by Alexei Vella

Cultural Awareness, Sooner not Later

While designers and studios that create work for external clients may need to conduct focus groups and audience reviews, designers who work in-house may have an advantage: knowing their audience and content because they’re closer to it. Ziad Al-Kadri, chief of the United Nations Graphic Design Unit explains:

“Design products developed in-house should complement the organization or company’s branding toolkit, which often includes specific guidance on usage of colors, typography, style of imagery and copyrighting. One of the many reasons such toolkits exist is to protect the image and communication outreach of the organizations against media or target audience misinterpretations. Whether we are designing for a global or a local public information campaign, we always make sure that our visual communication solutions and campaign messages are free from any cultural faux pas. Considering the subject matter we’re trying to raise awareness for, we tend to be very diligent about the type of messages, colors and imagery we use for our design solutions.”

At the UN, Al-Kadri and his team undergo a rigorous process of design and review, looking at the key messages, slogans, taglines, colors, photography, imagery and illustrations, among other design components. But paying attention to those elements shouldn’t happen only on the job, and learning about them needs to happen sooner.

Al-Kadri says that “raising awareness and learning about one’s culture and the culture of others should be taught and discussed in schools and universities. I wonder whether universities or colleges should start teaching anthropology students graphic design or graphic design students anthropology? I think the latter might work better. I think that designers nowadays need to learn about the culture of others in order to achieve efficient and impactful design solutions for the global market. Anthropology studies will allow them to better understand the beliefs and traditions of the world’s international cultures and to get accustomed to their deep-rooted perceptions.”

Test, ReDesign, Overcome Obstacles


Identify is the ultimate authoritative examination of the process, approach, and principles that result, time and time again, in identity design with the potential to become iconic, and thus succeed in representing a brand in the mind of the public for generations.

No matter the preparation or internal and external reviews, mistakes can and do happen. Sometimes the mistakes are large, sometimes they’re small. Sometimes different cultures may accept one thing, but other cultures may frown on it, as is the case with color. When Sagi Haviv, partner at Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv, was working on the identity for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, color and its inherit meaning became a challenging factor.

“When Steff Geissbuhler and I worked on the identity for them, a serious question about color came up. In the course of extensive research within the various target countries, it turned out that almost every color on the spectrum was problematic in one country or another. At the end of the day, the only color that did not represent a significant issue with any constituency was orange. So we used it!”

Sometimes mistakes happen before a design is released to the public, and they get identified and then corrected. Tan Le, head creative director of the Atlanta office of Anthem Worldwide, a global brand and design network agency, spoke about his experience with designing a new logo and branding system for an urban clothing store: “Their target demographics were lower-income urban youths and the hip-hop/club crowds. To reflect that demographic, and brand authenticity, our original proposed brand logo and system was based on the look and feel of the New York City subway signage, colors and iconography. The design intent was to be inner-city chic with an austere/industrial feel.”

What did the focus group results from their loyal shoppers reveal about that approach? It was way off. “The unanimous feedback was that our brand’s NYC subway look and feel was degrading, pessimistic and culturally uninspired. To them, the subway connotated dirty, crowded, smelly environments—not a place where they’d like to buy clothes and spend time. And while the stores may be located in lower-income, urban neighborhoods, shoppers don’t want to be reminded of it when they shop.

“In this case, brand authenticity was unwanted, and a big cultural faux pas. Instead, what their shoppers want is an inspired brand and store that took them out of their neighborhoods. They wanted a Macy’s, a fashion boutique—store brands that would be more in line with suburban malls and neighborhoods. So we went back and started from scratch, and developed a new brand that reflects those inspired environments and personas, yet also reflects the merchandise. No more NYC subway. We tested it again, and it was overwhelmingly well-received the second time around,” he says.

From the Outside In

But what if you don’t know the audience you’re designing for? Where do you start? Rishi Sodha, partner at 2Creatives London Limited, offers a solution: “When working with international clients it’s important to respect that they are going to have local knowledge that you don’t. When beginning the project, be honest with your client about this and work with them to gain that knowledge and ensure that they are comfortable being the ‘cultural experts’ on the project. When working out of your comfort zone it’s important to be honest about your strengths and mitigate any weaknesses by working collaboratively with local partners or your client.”

Even if you claim to know the material and your audience, and your client says the same, it may be best to keep Negrillo’s advice in mind: “Do not design for yourself. Get out of your bubble and go talk with people where they live, where they work. Also, avoid generalizations—including stereotypes. They are the root cause of most misconceptions about actual, real people.” Ultimately, that’s who we’re designing for, real people—people other than ourselves—who come from different walks of life and different cultures, who see the world and design through a different lens than we may.