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Software Localization and Color: Cultural implications of color choices in UI

Effective Software Localization Has to Take Culture Into Account

In this article, we give a brief overview of some of the different associations various cultures have to color, which is important to consider when localizing software. Software localization and color, like formatting and word length, go hand in hand. To ensure successful software localization, it’s important to know how your target markets view color.

In every culture people have different associations to objects, manners, lifestyles, and ideas. In Japan, for example, it’s completely acceptable to slurp ramen from a bowl, whereas doing so in some western countries won’t necessarily make you many friends around the dinner table. Symbolic associations, it could be argued, lie at the very heart of culture itself. Colors, just like hair or clothing styles, education levels or career paths, are associated with different ideas, beliefs, or values. When it comes time to localize your software or mobile apps into different languages and for different cultures, it’s important to do a little digging into the associations your target markets have to the colors you choose to use for your software’s visual layout.

Software Localization and Color: Some Specifics

What’s considered a symbol of wealth and success in one culture might be a sign of bad luck or misfortune in another. In the West we associate the color green with finance, good luck, and money (it’s no wonder banknotes in the States used to be called “Greenbacks”). In China, on the other hand, the color green isn’t directly correlated to money and wealth. Instead, it’s generally associated with health and harmony, and in some cases—such as when a man wears a green hat—marital infidelity. When it comes to wealth and prosperity, the Chinese prefer the color red. But be careful how much red you use in other countries. In some parts of Africa, the color red is associated with death; in others still, it represents vitality and aggression.

Another major difference between cultural perceptions of color surrounds the color white. In the West, brides wear elegant white wedding gowns symbolizing both purity and grace. And then there’s the ubiquitous symbol of the white dove holding an olive branch between its beak—a sign of harmony and peace. In parts of Asia, however, white is a symbol of death and mourning, whereas in Thailand and Brazil, purple is the color used to symbolize the same thing.

Color and Apps

Beyond their functionality, your software or products represent something. Owning and using your product might be a symbol of status, or, in the case of medical software or devices, might signify health or life. There is a distinct difference in how health is represented through color in China and the way it’s represented in the West. According to an article by CNN, developers in China created an app that would help people living in rural China gain better and more immediate access to healthcare by enabling them to directly interact with their physicians. The app, called 春雨医生, “Chunyu Yisheng,” makes heavy use of the color green. This is in large part due to the fact that the color green is associated with health and harmony, as I mentioned above.

But do a search for “health” in the App Store here in the United States, and you’ll see that nearly all of the apps available feature different shades of either blue or red. Even the default health app on an iOS system features the color red, which, being depicted through a red heart on the app’s icon, is a symbol of health, fitness, and—in times of war—triage (think the Red Cross). Once you click on the app, you soon realize that more than 90% of the screen is in various warm shades of red or orange.

Why Color Matters

When you take color and software localization into consideration and how the two work together in foreign markets, you’re able to avoid offending your target audiences or customers. This goes a long way for the success of your product abroad, just as it goes a long way to make sure that the symbols you use for your localized software are appropriate for your different demographics. But it’s not just about not offending your target audiences; it’s about making sure that the software environment you’re offering your customers makes them feel at home and provides them with a sense of familiarity.

As I mentioned above, the color red in China is associated with wealth and prosperity. If the developers of Chunyu Yisheng had chosen a red color palette like Apple’s developers had done for its western audience, it’s possible their intended users would have been left a little confused, or possibly uneasy (“Red?! How much is this virtual chat with my doctor going to cost me?!”). Everyone sees color differently, which is amplified across different cultures. Ultimately, the colors your use will affect the way people view your product.


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