Feb 16, 2010

Erin Moore: Cross-Cultural Design = Living on the Edge

“There is a difference between good design and good cross-cultural design…”

I have spent a lot of time these past months living on borders. I woke up the other day to the realization that each place I have lived or visited in the past year has allowed me to look out a window not far from where I am staying and see into what the maps deem to be a different place or a foreign land. And while, somewhere, in the back of my head, I have always realized that these lines, drawn on maps, have, over the centuries formed distinct cultures and customs, I have only recently started to grasp what happens as these cultures overflow their designated borders and begin to connect and overlap.

Whether these connections are a result of technology, economy, transportation, education, politics or one of a million other things probably doesn’t matter as much as the fact that these connections, large and small, are happening – constantly. And now more than ever. Living on these borders, it is easy to see how people of one place have integrated the customs and languages of another into their daily lives. When you live on the border, cultural exchange (or collision) is inevitable. Products, services and communications more often than not, cater to people of both backgrounds. But I wonder about the availability of this type of fluid exchange between people who live miles, countries or continents away from the cultures that they need or want to interact with. It poses an interesting question (and unique challenge) for designers, as these types of connections continue with increasing frequency across all industries.

I started thinking about different ways to frame the work of designers within this cross-cultural climate:

1. Cross-cultural design is the creation of products, services, communications and experiences that all cultures can interpret and use.

2. Cross-cultural design is the creation of products, services, communications and experiences that are specific to one culture but designed by someone from a different culture.

3. Cross-cultural design is the creation of products, services, communications and experiences that facilitate interactions between cultures or across communication boundaries.

There is a difference between good design and good cross-cultural design.

It seems to be an obvious distinction, but for clarity, it is one that should be made from the start.

The first definition on the list suggests that I could design anything from a carrot peeler to a car and people from Asia to Antarctica could use it despite their vastly different cultural climates. Ostensibly, these objects are very well designed, but, at the end of the day, their use doesn’t require (and isn’t motivated by) cultural exchange. We all hope that the design functions in one place just as well as it does another, but there is nothing about either product that attempts to bring cultures into a more connected relationship with one another. In this case, design that everyone can use is just good design.

“Cross-cultural Design” should be distinguished from “Design for Culture”.

Currently, there seems to be a fair amount of projects and conversation focused on the second point. Many times when we approach cross-cultural design, we think of it as design for another place that is not our own. We are American’s designing for Asians or Asians designing for Europeans. The process we go through is, undoubtedly, cross-cultural because it requires us as designers to cross the boundaries of our “knowns” and design for a place that is slightly less known … to us. For example, maybe I have devised some way for the blade of my carrot peeler to adjust to the different sized carrots grown in the pacific region, or I have designed the steering wheel of my car to thaw out with the push of a button. Maybe I have even researched each country’s visual language and unique character set and incorporated it into my final advertising and promotion.

My problem with classifying this as “cross-cultural design” is that while the process requires us designers to stay up late or take an early morning phone call, while it probably necessitated a little (or a lot) of additional cultural research and understanding, the resulting design does not always call for cross-cultural use. The design itself is not meant to facilitate exchange, nor does it encourage it. Our resulting product, communication, or service still only resonates with people of one culture or another.

Aside from our own work behind the scene, there is nothing “cross” about this kind of cultural design.

Crossing cultures means crossing a lot of other things too.

The third view point assumes that cross-cultural projects should not only be able to be used by people of different cultural traditions, but should, by design, generate connections, ease communication and promote understanding between people from disparate backgrounds. The kind of solutions that the third point supports are those that are created out of a specific need to bridge cultural divides rather than just recognize that these divides exist.

The question becomes: Are we designing products, creating services, and crafting communications that in themselves, through their function, effectively cross-cultural boundaries and communicate to different groups simultaneously?

In an interview with the authors of Data Flow, LUST Design suggests that data visualization is one effective tool for cross-cultural communication. It doesn’t have to rely on language. It is not dependent on a specific alphabet. It doesn’t appeal to specific cultural knowledge, or rely on metaphors, histories or traditions. Because data can communicate through a language of visual symbols rather than an intricate play of cultural relationships, it can be an effective way to reach across geographical boundaries.

But I wonder what other forms can accomplish similar results?

Regardless of what these forms and methods are, it is clear that design now, more than ever, must become more anthropologic. In order to understand and work towards authentic cross-cultural solutions, designers must have space and time to explore, to gather information, to connect with people, with industries, projects and places that they haven’t explored before. And these connections – whether they are large or small – must happen. Constantly. Our explorations must seek to understand racial and economic divides, traverse geographic boundaries and negotiate linguistic barriers.

Our intention should be to find ways to create hybrid experiences, and in order to do so, designers need to become hybrid themselves – moving seamlessly among people, information and environments in order to discover the best ways to design similar experiences for those we are creating for.

Erin Moore is a designer, thinker and budding ethnographer whose desire to contribute to compelling projects that also tell great stories, knows few limits. She has spent a good part of the past year traveling and connecting with people and communities who have similar goals. Currently, she is in northeast Thailand helping a local cultural center develop narrative content that communicates the unique heritage and traditions of their region.
Prior to her work in Thailand, Erin was the Design Manager at Sundaram Tagore Gallery in New York City. She holds a degree in Visual Communications from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has
also completed studies at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and The School of Visual Arts. You can find her at www.erinlmoore.com

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