Designing for Translation: 5 Tips to Get Your Projects Global-Ready


In 2006, the average US website was available in 14 languages. Last year, it was 30. From manufacturers beginning to export to Fortune 500s like Coca-Cola or Ralph Lauren, American brands understand the importance of going global now more than ever before. And it’s not just websites either—brochures, display ads, catalogues—if it’s in the collateral, it’s in other languages. So whether you deal with multilingual projects now or will need to in the future, if you don’t start each one designing for translation, translation will redesign for you.

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That’s because replacing one language for another is much more complicated than changing out lorem ipsum for copy. English text can become 30% longer in Spanish and can shrink 15% in Dutch. Translate the words, and suddenly your beautifully-designed brochure can look cramped or have tiny bits of white space all over it.

gif showing how translation affects copy length

Gif courtesy of Smartling, a translation software company

So when a project is destined to go international, how do you make sure your design looks good no matter the language?

Think up and down.

An English sentence—like the one you’re reading now—starts at the left and ends at the right. But not all languages do. Arabic, Hebrew, Urdu, and many others start at the right. And some—like Japanese—can start at the right, start at the left, or start at the top then go down. It just depends on what the copy’s about and on the tone your project needs to set. If you think vertically instead of horizontally, it won’t matter as much when translation changes the direction. The layout will simply look like your original design was center-aligned.

Theory of Mind - Pt 2

Figure 1: Eye tracking showed people were less likely to see the copy block when the baby looked forward than they were when the baby looked at it.

Think about theory of mind.

Language direction doesn’t just affect where you orient your copy, but where you place images as well. Take a look at Figure 1. Eye tracking showed people were less likely to see the copy block when the baby looked forward than they were when the baby looked at it. People’s eyes naturally go to the child, then look where he’s looking, which creates direction and flow when he looks the same direction you need your audience to look. But if you read from right to left, the baby’s staring at the end of the message—not the beginning. Instead of flow, you create a mental stop in the middle of your page. “Theory of mind” basically means thinking like your audience. So rethink where they need the baby.

Simplified Chinese with Pinyin and English meaningsSimplified Chinese with Pinyin and English meaningsSimplified Chinese with Pinyin and English meanings

Credit: Oktay Ortakcioglu | Image from Getty


Think big.

10-point may be the college paper font-size of choice, but anything smaller than 10.5 and you’ll have trouble in translation. That’s because Chinese and a few other languages are pictorial. Each character conveys a separate word and—in Traditional Chinese especially, since it has more strokes than Simplified—if you can’t see the larger design, you can’t see the message. Starting with a larger font also helps keep your copy from looking cramped after it’s translated into Spanish, French, and those longer romance languages. Post-translation, you can simply bring font size down to something normal.

Think intentionally.

As designers, we don’t just use color to look good, but also to convey meaning. For example, in the US red means hunger or love. That’s why it’s all over Pizza Hut—they want you to hungrily love their restaurant. But in some countries, red signifies danger or communism. So unless you want a communist pizza that kills, think twice about how it’s used. I’m not saying go B+W with your design—if you design for Pizza Hut, you need red—but treat color for localization the same way you would for accessibility. If you stay away from certain shades for the colorblind, that’s a safe list to avoid for translation too.

Think in context.

Simple design is beautiful design. But when there’s not enough info in your ad—be it textual or visual—there’s less there to help a translator to understand your message and translate it appropriately. For example, if your ad only has the words “Go home,” the translation’s going to be very different for Windows than for RE/MAX. Don’t feel like you have to put a picture of “home” in the ad if it doesn’t fit your design. But be prepared to give your translator more information before she starts or be prepared for an incorrect translation.

HWSP17 (1)Learn more about designing for translation in the Spring 2017 Issue of HOW Magazine. Plus, discover the 292 winning designs from HOW’s largest competition: The International Design Awards. Plus explore Lisbon’s booming startup culture & learn a lettering trick that will enhance any design.