The web design process is very much about how your site ‘looks’ and ‘feels’. Most people over the age of twenty five will remember – fondly or otherwise – that the Web was once awash with sites from ‘designers’ in the very loosest sense of the term: dancing icons, annoying jingles and bizarre color schemes cobbled together to promote…well, something that perhaps wasn’t instantly obvious.
There are still countless examples of such sites on the net, but with a generation growing up with the internet on tap, a more savvy, switched-on designer has emerged. And many of those that were around in the early days of the World Wide Web either gave up the ghost, or learned what web design was all about. And with countless web applications helping to simplify the design process for non-programmers, sophisticated online hubs are more prevalent than ever.
But it’s all too easy to get bogged down in the visual aesthetics of your website. Indeed, the very second you launch your carefully crafted website into cyberspace, your efforts are visible for the entire world to see. Cyber surfers from Seattle and San Francisco, to Sweden and Spain all have equal, real-time access to your personal pages. And with that in mind, the need to build your website for a global audience is vital. However, multilingual web design is an art in itself.
Of course, if your key objective is to operate a non-profit blog or website and simply drive as much traffic to it as possible, then you’ll probably be fine with an English-only website: some 1.5 billion people speak English at least to a communicative standard.
If, on the other hand, you want to build a profitable web portal, then you should consider this: 75% of the world’s population speaks no English whatsoever. And the proportion of those English speakers that aren’t native speakers would still prefer to communicate in their own tongue.
Adapting your website for other languages and cultures will, naturally, require translation at some point. But before this stage, there are a number of steps you can take in the initial design phase that will make the subsequent adaptation a whole lot easier. Here are three aspects of your website design to consider if you are planning on tapping into international markets.
Unicode Character Encoding
Unicode is an industry standard which permits computers to display text in most of the world’s writing systems. It has been adopted by IT and technology industry heavyweights such as Apple and Microsoft…not to mention many others. It is also supported by all the common operating systems and web browsers.
Unicode is compatible with over 90 scripts incorporating over a hundred thousand characters. UTF-8 is a variable-length character encoding for Unicode and it’s widely considered to be the best option for sites that will eventually be adapted for different languages. It facilitates the use of characters from countless different alphabets.
Good, intuitive navigation is the cornerstone of any well designed site. Regardless of whether the desired outcome is that a site’s visitor makes a purchase or simply acquires the information they were looking for, clear and consistent signposting is a crucial part of your site’s make-up.
But remember: not all languages read from left to right. Arabic, for example, is the fifth most commonly spoken language in the world…and the written language always reads from right to left (RTL). So do countless other scripts from around the world and this can have an effect if your site’s menus are located on the left.
One option round this is switch the menu to the opposite side of the page for RTL languages; but for ease – and consistency across your different language sites – you could opt for a horizontal menu bar across the top.
Color will always play a pivotal part in much of your design decision making and it’s important to get right. For example, text can be difficult to read if its color is too close to that of the background.
But your color-scheme should also take into account your target country and culture. In western cultures, for example, red can denote ‘danger’ or ‘passion’. But red can indicate ‘purity’ in India or ‘good luck’ in China.
Similarly, green represents nature in many cultures. But try to avoid placing a photo or illustration of a green hat anywhere on your site – in China, this symbolizes that a man’s wife has been unfaithful to him.
Orange has religious connotations in parts of Northern Ireland; but it also represents ‘autumn’ (‘fall’), or even ‘Halloween’ in many Westerns cultures too.
So, to to avoid having to redesign your website later on, you should consider your website’s color system from the start.
These are just some of the basics of building a website that is easily adapted for global markets. By following these steps, you’ll be much better placed should you decide to tap into the majority of the world’s population that don’t speak English, whilst ensuring local cultures and customs are addresses too.
About the author
Christian Arno is the Managing Director of translation company and website localization specialists Lingo24. In 2009, Lingo24 translated 33 million words for companies in over 60 countries. Their turnover last year was $6.1m USD.