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Communication Design is the knowledge and practice of combining text and visual elements, such as images, GIFs, videos, etc., to convey an intended message to the target audience. Nowadays, visual communication design leverages new-age tools and technologies to design artworks such as flyers, brochures, posters, and many more. The objective of the communication design is to inspire and motivate people to take certain actions, such as becoming aware of the brand, visiting the company's website or store, etc.
Communication design is inextricably linked to culture as it involves conveying a certain message to the audience. The term ‘culture’ refers to a set of values, norms, language, and beliefs that are shared among the members of a community. It shapes how an individual views the world and his or her perception of right and wrong, and it provides the lens through which he or she receives and conveys the message.
Culture influences communication designers to conceptualise, design, and build artworks with more sensitivity to people’s lived experiences. For instance, the choice of colour has cultural references in communication design.The red colour, considered auspicious in India, is associated with death in Africa. Similarly, symbols also reflect cultural beliefs. The Swastika symbol is associated with Hinduism in India but may connote the Nazi regime for most Europeans as the Nazi party had adopted the rotated Swastika as their symbol.
Language, which plays a vital role in communication design in telling the story of the product or brand, is also linked to culture, as some words in one culture may be inappropriate for another. Likewise, the process of designing an organisational website also draws from the cultural context of the users. Factors such as the location of the menu bar and images and the number of links to be used are often dependent upon the expectations of the user, who, in turn, is influenced by his culture and the expectations that members of his culture have in relation to the overall design of different communication materials.
The advent of globalisation, the evolution of technologies and ideas, and the migration of people across the globe have fundamentally altered the way people interact with each other. Today, a key challenge for communication design professionals is to design successfully while keeping cultural diversity in mind. This problem is compounded by the fact that any specific culture is an amalgam of different groups who may have varied expectations and needs from a particular communication design artwork.
Designing a product or artwork for a global audience is a formidable challenge because communication designers are unsure whether to create a product or artwork catering to all cultures and nations or only to select individuals across cultures and countries who need it. To address this challenge, communication designers often focus on audience segmentation to alter the messaging according to each culture. However, this approach has certain limitations, as while text can be customised word-by-word, each element of the visual communication design cannot be customised according to the audience.
Information and approaches are the keys to successful communication. It is recommended that communication designers be knowledgeable about the culture for which they are designing the products or artworks and the context in which the audience will use or interact with those materials. Since knowledge cannot be acquired in one go, approaches to acquiring knowledge also assume significance. Beyond merely relying on literature for research, communication designers must also observe members of a given culture to learn about perceptions and explore ways to test their designs with members of the given community to revise and adapt them to the needs and expectations of that audience.
Despite the challenges, there are several examples of brands tailoring their artwork or products to cater to a specific cultural audience. For instance, when Facebook launched in Saudi Arabia, it reversed its homepage design since it was aware that Arabic follows a right-to-left reading direction.
Unilever is another example of a company that has incorporated cultural sensitivities into its product offerings. To cater to the rural population, they pioneered shampoo sachets, which enable rural customers to purchase small quantities at their convenience. McDonald’s is an excellent example of cross-cultural communication design by incorporating a taste of local cuisine into a particular region. For instance, Teri Tama Burger is intrinsic to Japan, while McAloo Tikki Burger is its specialty in India.
Besides cultural adaptation, communication design should also incorporate cultural sensitivity and inclusivity into artworks. Cultural sensitivity takes into account the diverse perspectives and experiences of various cultures and communities. It affects the way people perceive and interact with design. When a particular design offends the sentiments of any community, not only does its intended message fail to reach the audience, but it also harms the brand’s reputation. Often, a culturally insensitive design is due to assumptions about a particular community and a lack of in-depth research about their cultures.
Designers should avoid using stereotypical imagery and language to create culturally sensitive designs. For example, a brand may release a caricature of people representing a marginalised community, which can lead to emotional distress. Communication design professionals should be mindful of cultural nuances, such as the fact that the colour red may mean danger in certain cultures while it is associated with luck in others. The use of correct linguistics is also important for culturally sensitive communication. A thumbs-up means approval and luck in India but connotes an insult in Bangladesh. Similarly, the 'V' gesture denotes victory in some countries but an insult in others. Avoiding frames of reference, understanding the context of communication, asking questions in case of doubt, and discarding stereotyped notions is the way forward to ensure cultural sensitivity and inclusivity for communication design professionals.
Despite these challenges, several brands have come up with innovative campaigns that incorporate inclusivity and address the problem of cultural sensitivity. Dove's Real Beauty campaign focuses on varied individuals such as people of colour, LBGTQ and various shapes and sizes.
Similarly, Mattel's depiction of Barbie dolls has evolved from traditional to inclusive. Another example would be Good American, which conducts an annual casting call for diverse women to model in its seasonal ad campaigns.
Yet there are examples of campaigns that failed because they offended the sensibilities of certain communities. For instance, FabIndia’s ‘Jashn-e-Riwaaz' created an uproar due to using the Urdu name in the ad for the Diwali festival. Tanishq was also criticised for its campaign portraying Muslim families celebrating Diwali. Pepsi's ad showing Deepika Padukone handing a Pepsi can to a security guard at a Diwali party was dubbed classist.
Like communication design, culture is also evolving. The revival of mysticism reflected through popular symbolism, including zodiac signs, lotus flowers, and sacred geometry coupled with imagery of the sun, moon, and stars, is the most dominant trend in 2023. Additionally, punk trends depicted through Do-it-Yourself techniques, scribbled lettering, and chaotic collages are in vogue, symbolising a rejection of luxury and decorum. The use of acid graphics is rising, incorporating grimy textures, chrome metallics, broken grids, and amorphous shapes.
The interplay of technology and globalisation on cultural design elements means it is indeed an exciting time for communication design. The resurgence of Riso print in graphic design is an example of such interaction. Riso print is a mid-80s print technique characterised by dots and desaturated colours, resulting in grainy images with double exposures.
Another example is the revival of retro line art, which dates to the days of felt tip markers.
The interplay among various factors also implies increased responsibilities for communication design professionals in a multicultural world. Being a designer offers an opportunity to solve societal problems and shape how people perceive information. With this privilege comes the responsibility of creating fair, accurate, respectful and transparent designs. Besides ensuring that their designs do not perpetuate stereotypes about gender, race, religion, etc. and that the information presented in their designs is accurate and updated, a responsible designer should demonstrate respect for all cultures, religions and communities, taking into account cultural sensitivities and the impact that their artwork may have on the society. They are also obligated to be transparent about the methods used in communication design.
Even with these responsibilities, communication design is a booming career option. Digitisation and penetration of the Internet have opened new opportunities in storytelling and visual communication. Communication design is the gateway to several career options, such as graphic design, animation, photojournalism, type design, creative direction, vlogging, etc. Communication design professionals work in media houses, creative agencies, advertising agencies, publication houses, e-commerce firms, academia, etc.
A degree in communication design is an entry for a career in this domain. However, once you have chosen the right course, it is equally important to choose the right institute. Located in the heart of Delhi, the Indian Institute of Art and Design is the sought-after institution for design courses. Highly qualified faculty, an updated curriculum blended with practical components, robust infrastructure and placement avenues are the salient features of the institute. Moreover, its collaboration with Kingston University London provides top-notch exposure, knowledge and skills aligned with the current job landscape.
So, if you are a communication design enthusiast, starting early by choosing the right course, college and action plan will propel your dreams onto a brighter trajectory.
If you enjoyed reading this piece, you might also like reading these other pieces by the author: Ashita Kulshreshtha’s take on future of visual merchandising, and luxury brand management.
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