09/06/2011 10:54 pm ET Updated Nov 06, 2011

Design Taste Cross Cultures

When visiting Europe, Americans are astonished by how small everything is. Apartments are no more than walk-in closets. Automobiles resemble toy cars zipping though perplexing traffic patterns. Meals go on forever, with miniscule portions and no choice of salad dressing. When visiting Asia, Americans are bombarded with colorful visual impressions, strong smells and closer contact with their fellow human beings than they had ever imagined possible. How do design preferences vary across the various continents and how do they reflect the values of various locations? Once we know these patterns, how can we optimize design for the various creative economies?

A country's evolution and in particular, their industrial revolution has shaped their population's norm for what is truly valued. In this instance, designers act as curators, observing objects and people's behaviors, sensing the beliefs and attitudes of a culture. Design professionals across the globe regularly enter contests and also give out design awards to showcase what their particular culture's answer is to good design. As an accepted measurement in the field of marketing, these awards are considered the best approximation to design performance metrics that we have. Examining the content of selection criteria for industrial design awards worldwide reveals how preferences shift from culture to culture.

Western cultures favor performance while Asian cultures have a strong emphasis on philosophy and the product in the context of the public's fundamental needs, such as education. American culture places a strong emphasis on innovation while Europeans instead treasure functionality. Surprisingly, functionality is relatively unimportant to the Chinese and China gives little importance to the design process. While Japan and Australia, to a large extent, mimic American preferences.

What does all this mean to design practitioners? With Americans seeking novelty, Europeans practicality and Asians seeking a fit with their cultural philosophy, all see the designers' primary responsibility as that of expressing their unique preferences. To successfully accomplish this, design teams need to internalize culturally implicit values and then prioritize and translate them into visual cues. American cues say dream, European cues say purpose and Asian cues say cultural fit. Functionality is communicated in Danish design through minimalism and longevity, German design is communicated by emphasizing efficiency and reliability, French design, by relaying the rethinking of functionality and Italian design calls for enjoyment of the product. By understanding these differences, designers can tailor their designs to local interpretations of these values. Despite the world getting smaller, many people still tend to live and stay close to where they were born and to a large extent, their preferences are formed by the context in which they live. So, to connect with your users it will be essential to understand and respect what they value in life.