Artemy Lebedev

§ 73. Cultural contexts

October 27, 2001

Humankind has been forced to put up with the lack of single standards. No sooner has one standard taken hold than it gets overshadowed by a more correct one, but not everyone will find it alluring enough to be taken for granted (as it was with the measurement of time: astronomical time appeared to suit everybody, but an atomic clock proved to be more precise). The Russian rainbow has seven colors in it, the English one—three or seven, and the German rainbow includes all of them. In the European culture white is a symbol of chastity, while in the Arab world it signifies death.

Even if all people huddle in counsel and agree upon the X hour to switch to one language, common standards and values, the next day they’ll find that the idea was essentially a flop. Somebody living in temperatures as high as 110° F will sooner take the vows than whisper “you are a hot one” to his darling.

The whole humankind is riven with contrasting cultures, tongues, traditions and window views. Let us call them cultural contexts. A cultural context may exist on levels as diverse as a family, a building, a city, a county, a state, a nation, a continent, a hemisphere etc. A cultural context is what helps you recognize “your kind” in all senses of the word.

A designer (in senses of the word ranging from creator to propagandist or from janitor to mastermind) must not only have his cultural context at his fingertips, but also possess an objective vision, which means knowing what’s what.

Suppose you’ve read that the End of the World is slated for May 1. The first thing you need to think about is time zones. They are quite irregular and do not always coincide with meridians. A time zone in one country may be as broad as three time zones in another. When it’s May 1 in Knoxville, TN, in Nashville, TN (about 180 miles from Knoxville), it’s still April 30. How will the End of the World proceed? Depending on state boundaries? Will it be adjusted for Daylight Saving Time?

Therein lies the frailty of a simple man: he is incapable of sober perception of reality. He is always glad to be cheated. A simple man will gladly purchase Sicilian dill never thinking twice about its difference from the dill grown at old McDonald’s farm. A simple man is reckless enough to buy a TV set as wide as a wall, although all TVs get the same signal with the same number of scan lines.

That’s where designer wields power. He can twist the viewer round his finger. But he normally has to stick to his cultural context: designer is human, too, and he also believes that packed granulated sugar is far better than sugar sold in bulk at a neighborhood grocery store, although a layman won’t tell one kind of sugar from another by taste only.

Housekeeping tip

A wonderful lesson of unbiased perception is taught to criminalists: gold that has been found can only be recorded as yellow metal, while a working dog is called in no other way than a bio-detector.

Apart from possessing an intuitive flair, designer should also be knowledgeable to be able to work in other cultural contexts. And he ought to see the essence behind the veil of foreign design and meaning.

In real life lack of comprehension of a different cultural context may produce a result like this one:

The nature of such mistakes in essentially lack of comprehension, which drives international companies to work worldwide toting the same advertising moves and slogans. Changes to this situation are hampered by local designers making bad things in each country of the world. To see it, flipping through any advertising magazine will suffice. Look at mobile phones, for instance. Dealers’ hackneyed techniques of advertising cellular phones under a trademark of an international company put off their parent companies to the point of dropping the idea of adding local flavor to things being sold.

What should a large company do if it suffers from a dull translator’s efforts aimed at bringing a foreign leaflet to terms with local customs? Search for a savvy design team. What should a design team do? Prove it’s savvy.

The longer it takes them to meet, the harder you’ll find it to cope with nausea every time you buy washing powder.

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