Web design and cultural identity

Andy "Malarky" Clarke penned an editorial a while back entitled Look out Johnny Foreigner in which he talked about web design and national identity.

At the time, I didn’t think that much about it, and I filed it away somewhere in the back of my mind. It crept back to my frontal lobes last week. I was given a design brief that was fairly broad and vague but with one important directive: it shouldn’t look American.

That really got me thinking. Is there such a thing as American web design or European web design?

I think that a nation’s artistic history can have an effect on the web design produced by its citizens. After all, if you’re constantly exposed to a number of motifs or design patterns, you’re bound to be influenced by them.

But enough of this wishy-washiness: how was I supposed to recognise American design so that I could avoid it for this particular job?

After some exploration and research, I began to see some patterns in web design from the US and other patterns in web design from Europe (at least on commercial sites). Similar underlying differences would probably emerge in comparing commercial advertising on television.

It seems to me that American web design is overtly friendly. The desire to project a friendly image might manifest itself in any combination of rounded corners, gradients and warm, unthreatening, naturalistic colours.

European web design, on the other hand, appears to be more concerned with authoritativeness than friendliness. This can result in a "cooler" design based on a strong grid system with blocks of colour and perhaps a preponderance of dotted lines.

Needless to say, neither approach is superior to the other. The American approach lends itself well to a friendly, informal dialogue but runs the risk of appearing condescending. The European approach should result in an elegant, dignified web presence but may well end up appearing stand-offish and snobby.

As I said, this is just what I’ve seen from examining commercial sites. When it comes to personal sites, all bets are off. But even there, differences still emerge.

For instance, the "wicked worn" retro look can have different connotations in different cultures. A faded 50s postcard or a piece of aged tiki-bar memorabilia might be the starting point for an American retro site. In Europe, the inspiration is more likely to come from Victorian or Edwardian times (but perhaps that’s just because the 50s were a grim, drab time in Europe while in America, they were the zenith of space-age optimism).

You’ll notice that I haven’t linked to any specific examples: that would be too easy. I don’t think there’s any one site that I could point to as quintessentially American or European. Globalisation and cross-fertilisation ensure that there’s no such thing as a "pure" cultural design identity.

Still, it’s interesting to spot the patterns in a finished website and wonder if the final design would have been different had it been designed by someone from a different cultural background.

Have you published a response to this? :