What is Cross-Culture Design? 

Cross-culture designs embrace different cultural aesthetics present globally and designers strive to establish and present a design solution. This solution is achieved through developed sensitivity towards cultures and their needs. This requires an in-depth understanding of the culture and the deep-inset behavioural patterns it generates in its people. This can be achieved through intensive study and research. Cross-culture designs aim to provide an innovative and holistic design unfolding for diverse markets.  

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Multi-cultural Group _©Renee Fleck
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Cultural Exchange _©ETN Focus

Why is Cross-Culture Design Important?

According to Senongo Akpem’s book “Cross-Cultural Design,” we tend to operate on the assumption that all users come from WEIRD (Westernized, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Developed) cultures. But if our designs are to reflect the globalized world we live in, then we should be creating products that are culturally responsive and offer multicultural experiences catering to all cultures across the globe.

Benefits of adapting Cross-culture design:

  • Cross-culture design allows a design to be localised and internationalised at the time.
  • Designing through a cultural lens allows the design brand to seamlessly make its place and grow in a foreign market which is culturally diverse. 
  • Consumers feel seen and heard. This further leads to enhanced customer-brand bonding.
  • It allows consumers to develop a substantial faith in the brand.
  • Multi-national companies hire and build a varied workforce to understand a multi-faceted perspective for their brands. This leads to an open and inclusive office culture.

Deciphering the Origin of Cross-Culture Design 

  • The tradesmen, artisans and craftsmen of the medieval period might have adapted the notions of what we know today as ‘cross-culture design’ in the wake of growing trade between civilizations. During the medieval period, there was an extensively spread trade route working in unison to bring forth culturally relevant materials across land and oceans. 
  • Valued and rare materials were produced and supplied according to the needs and demands of the deliverables. This meant change or adaptation in the indigenous material or craft to supply the needs of a foreign market. This adaptation was an effort to boost economies by delivering to the growing demand for imported goods in varied markets.
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Trading Ships on Surat Port in 17th century _© British Library

Studying Cross-Culture Design through Case Studies

Case studies can be an interesting and exciting way to break down complex topics with simple step-wise understanding. As these case studies are based on historical events or daily life challenges, one can easily relate to them and understand concepts better. These are often a part of the initial research stage of every designer’s process.

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Development of Design Solutions _©Freepik

Case Study 1: Textile Design

In the 15th century when Vasco Da Gama discovered the Cape of Good Hope, it enhanced the trade between India and England. European business organizations started buying Indian materials and to provide a steady supply of Indian products, the East India Company made its way into the Indian subcontinent.

Rich Indian textiles like silk and cotton were being made from different dyes and surface designs like embroidery, block printing, painting, weaving along with several other techniques and these textiles were increasingly treasured in the European market. This made Indian artisans and craftsmen evolve their design skills suitable to the European markets matching their standard aesthetics and colour schemes using Indian materials and artistry.

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Yarns of Silk, Cotton, Wool and Gold plated threads for embroidery__©Victoria Albert Museum
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Yarns of Silk, Cotton, Wool and Gold plated threads for embroidery__©Victoria Albert Museum
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Indian Textiles of Chintz fabric with block printing catered for the European market__©Victoria Albert Museum
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Indian Textiles of Chintz fabric with block printing catered for the European market__©Victoria Albert Museum

Here we can see an adaptation of the Indian motifs to cater for the European market. One can visibly notice the colour variation of fewer statement colours and rich tapestry of fabrics through the collection of images from the Victoria Albert Museum.

These are examples of cross-culture designs that can be proximate and relatable to us, Indians. This adaptation of several art forms by the craftsmen to suit and efficiently engage with the foreign market subtly puts forth the idea of cross-culture design.

Case Study 2: Architecture

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Mahabat Maqbara in Junagadh, Gujarat _© Government of Gujarat

The Mahabat Maqbara is a mausoleum dedicated to the Nawab of Junagadh, Muhammad Mahabat Khanji II. It is located in the Junagadh district of Gujarat, built from 1878 to 1892. During this period, the British Government had a stronghold in India. The Indian artists were commissioned to design projects for the European audience. Hence, the art in this period was highly influenced by European aesthetics. This led to artists experimenting and integrating various designs across cultures to create one homogenous design. The mausoleum is an example of cross-culture design with its seamless blend of Indo-Islamic European style of architecture.

Cross-Cultural Features of the structure include: 

  • European influences include French windows stretching from floor to lintel level and ornamental Gothic columns alongside the doors and windows.
  • The Islamic architectural features of intricate stone cutting and carving techniques are evident in the motifs that adorn the facade of the building. These fine carvings take the form of European-inspired organic-shaped flowers, leaves and vines covering the sandstone walls and columns.
  • The mausoleum follows a strict Islamic planning and layout. Additionally, the interiors of the structure are brightly coloured inspired by European aesthetics using natural paints occurring from stones and plants.
  • The interior carvings particularly portray scenes from nature including carvings of animals, birds, and forest flora creating a calm and peaceful environment replicating the afterlife of heaven for the final resting place of the royals, thereby creating a blend of Islamic and European belief systems.

This structure is a fruit of the social connection between the Babi dynasty and the then-ruling British Colonial Government. It highlighted the dynasty’s modern approach to introducing and inculcating foreign design styles in the princely state of India. And at the same time, the structure served as a symbol of the Babi Dynasty’s strength and wealth. It could be said that this structure is an after-product of cross-cultural bonding between two powerful rulers.

Case Study 3 : Colour Design

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Colours in Culture __© Pantone

Colours in different regions of the world stand for different meanings. Each colour carries culturally symbolic meaning. In some countries, certain colours could mean prosperity and luck, however, the same colour in the region of the world might be looked down upon. Colours are often associated with sacred rituals, festivals, political parties, and national flags. Therefore, it is essential to understand the importance of colour when creating culturally focused designs.

We will look at an example highlighting the importance of colour selection in the design process of cross-culture design. The example compares the fast food brand of Mcdonald’s in two different locations i.e. in India and Sweden.

The McDonald’s signage on the Indian website of McDonald is dominated by the colour red. This is because red is considered a sacred and auspicious colour often linked with sacred rituals and festivals. This change in representing the brand in a different scheme creates a connection of understanding between the Indian consumers and the food chain brand.

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Mc Donalds Signage in India __© Mc Donald India
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Mc Donalds Signage in Sweden __© Mc Donald Sweden

However, the signage and the whole interface of Swedish McDonalds’s are dominated by the colour green. This is because the Swedish associate the colour with healthy, green food and a way to an eco-friendly lifestyle. 

These seemingly minor details when given attention can lead to cultural appreciation design which further directs a prosperous growth of the consumers with the brand. These case studies are few examples that can allow us to understand the basic concept and idea behind Cross-Culture Design. There are several other examples that can deepen our understanding of the subject and shed light on the need for the adaptation of this field. With growing globalization and the world coming closer, there is an increasing demand for personalised experiences.

Given below are some book recommendations that provide deeper research followed by theories and applications of this emerging cross-culture design field:

Cross-Culture Design by Senongo Akpem

Senongo Akpem says, with utmost timeliness, a clear and accessible methodology is shared for designing across cultures: from performing socially conscious research to building culturally responsive experiences to developing meaningful internationalization and localization approaches. Expand your craft, and your mindset and start creating a richer experience for everyone on the web, regardless of location, language, or identity.

 Cross-Cultural Psychology: Critical Thinking and Contemporary Applications by Eric Shiraev and David Levy

Jeremy Sutton explains, the book contains a wealth of recent references to keep you updated about the field. Along with covering the theory, it explores how to apply the learnings in various multicultural contexts including teaching, healthcare, social work, and counselling.

The Cross-Cultural Coaching Kaleidoscope by Jennifer Plaister-Ten

In Jennifer Plaister-Ten’s book, one learns about the impact of cross-cultural psychology and how to work and practice in a global market. Jeremy Sutton explains, one learns about the impact of cross-cultural psychology and how to work and practice in a global market. This is an incredibly valuable text for coaches working in a multicultural environment and raising awareness of cultural influences for their clients’ benefit.

Developing Cross-cultural Vision __© Global Cognition

Research and References : 

Lombardo, G. (2022). A Guide To Cross-Cultural Design — By Senongo Apkem. [online] DeMagSign. Available at: https://medium.com/demagsign/a-guide-to-cross-cultural-design-by-senongo-apkem-368c90de1b76

Toptal Design Blog. (n.d.). The Complete Guide to Cross-cultural Design. [online] Available at: https://www.toptal.com/designers/ux/guide-to-cross-cultural-design

dropbox.design. (n.d.). 5 tips to get started with cross-cultural design | Dropbox Design. [online] Available at: https://dropbox.design/article/5-tips-to-get-started-with-cross-cultural-design

indianculture.nvli.in. (n.d.). COLONIAL PERIOD | INDIAN CULTURE. [online] Available at: https://indianculture.nvli.in/node/2637507

Victoria and Albert Museum. (n.d.). V&A · Indian textiles. [online] Available at: https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/indian-textiles

Big Human. (n.d.). Cross Cultural Design: What Is It & Why Does It Matter? [online] Available at: https://www.bighuman.com/blog/guide-to-cross-cultural-design

Summa Linguae (2014). Colors Across Cultures – Business Examples & Infographic. [online] Summa Linguae. Available at: https://summalinguae.com/language-culture/colours-across-cultures/

Sutton, J. (2021). What Is Cross-Cultural Psychology? 11 Research Findings & Theories. positivepsychology. [online] 10 Apr. Available at: https://positivepsychology.com/cross-cultural-psychology/


Nandini is an architect and loves to illustrate motifs & patterns inspired from her travels. She photographs to keep her memories always alive. One could spot Nandini donning bright Indian textiles and chomping on ramen. She is an avid Sitar player and an Indian classical dancer.