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Thought Leadership

How Do I Design in a Foreign Language?

Bright Bright Great is a global team. We speak English, Spanish, Serbian, Russian, Portuguese, German (and probably a few others). BBG partner with clients around the world. It is not uncommon for BBG to see requests in English, however very regularly we see requests for layouts, art direction, and promotional materials in languages we don’t speak natively. So the big question is “how do I design in a foreign language?”

I think all designers biggest fear is creating something that looks great, but creates a giant gaffe in a foreign language. There is a great story about how Ariana Grande got a celebratory hand tattoo to coincide with the launch of her “7 Rings” album. She received a Kanji tattoo that removed some of the characters and ultimately her tattoo meant Shichirin or “Japanese Charcoal Grill” instead of “7 Rings” as intended. 😎 Ariana Grande Hand Tattoo via CBS News.

Whoops.

From an international copywriting perspective think there, their, and they’re. All spoken audibly into a translator could be viewed as the same.

P44 German Language Layouts
P44 German Language Posters

How BBG does it…

BBG has seen a lot of Chinese design in 2023, which is not a language we speak. So how do handle that process knowing we can make it aesthetic, but also wont know the final meaning of what we are laying out.

  • Require final proofing from a native speaker for approval. Sounds simple, but sometimes a native speaker on the client end isn’t available. Should this be the case, we pause the project until we can get eyes on it.
  • In a bind, we can look for a translation service, friend, or peer who can help us out. We have global friends, maybe someone can take a peek. We actively do this. 🙂
  • Double and triple check to make sure exported work retains the accuracy.

What if a Client doesn’t speak the language either?

Lots of our clients go to trade shows in countries where they also aren’t native.

We don’t want to put anyone in a weird situation where copy doesn’t convey their meaning. In this scenario, which also happens pretty frequently, we require a native copywriter and proofreader. There are lots of translation agencies who solely focus on this.

What about unknown foreign design norms related to culture?

Another great question. This is as much a UX topic as it is a general design requirement.

Every designers first foray into this is usually Asian business cards, different size and you present an Asian business card with two hands so design really isn’t typically on the edges of the card. For every Asian business card there are a million other norms we don’t know (yet.) This is something we research for each project individually. Can you use a non-traditionally dressed business woman in a photograph in the Middle East? It actually depends on the country.

The moral of the story is that good design principles are global. They create great experiences, but they are applied differently around the globe and it is critical for a good designer to do research before any assumption.

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