How do different cultures perceive symbols in icons?


  • Different cultures perceive symbols in icons based on their unique history, religion, and social norms. 
  • The thumbs-up gesture is positive in Western cultures but offensive in parts of West Africa and the Middle East. 
  • A check mark means "correct" in Western countries but "wrong" in Japan and Scandinavia. 
  • The symbolism of colors varies too; white represents purity in the West but signifies mourning in Eastern cultures. 
  • Adapting icons to cultural contexts, such as Apple’s diverse emojis, enhances user experience by ensuring clear communication and respecting local customs.

Deep dive

Symbols carry different meanings and connotations in different cultures due to variations in history, religion, social norms, and visual language. 

Users process symbols based on their existing mental models, which are heavily influenced by their cultural background and experiences. For instance, the thumbs-up gesture is a sign of approval in many Western cultures but can be offensive in parts of West Africa, the Middle East, and South America.

Related reading: What do icon metaphors and symbolism mean?

Symbols that clash with cultural expectations can evoke negative emotions, leading to poor user experience and brand perception. For example, the swastika is an ancient symbol of good luck and prosperity in Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain traditions. However, in Western countries, it is strongly associated with the atrocities of the Nazi regime and is seen as a symbol of hate.

Another example is the check mark. In most Western countries, it means something is correct, complete, or affirmed, but in Scandinavian countries and Japan, it means "wrong." 

When Amazon discovered that some customers didn't recognize the magnifying glass as a standard search icon – referring to it as a ping-pong paddle – they introduced pop-up descriptions and recommendations in Hindi to clarify its function.

Moreover, colors can carry different meanings across cultures. White represents purity and weddings in Western cultures but symbolizes death and mourning in many Eastern cultures. Red is seen as good luck and prosperity in China but indicates danger in many Western contexts.

Related reading: Do different cultures perceive colors differently? How does this affect design decisions?

Adapting icons to specific regions or cultures may be necessary to ensure clear communication and respect for local customs. 

A prime example is Apple’s use of emojis. Initially, Apple's emojis were limited in diversity, but today’s iOS emojis offer various skin tones and include symbols from different cultures. This evolution highlights the importance of culturally inclusive symbols, showing how even minor elements like emojis can create a more inclusive user experience.

Based on these factors and assumptions, designing culturally appropriate icons requires:

  1. In-depth research into the symbolism, visual language, and cultural norms of target audiences.
  2. Collaboration with local experts or native designers who can provide valuable cultural insights and guidance.
  3. Iterative design and user testing with diverse participants to validate icon comprehension and emotional response.
  4. Willingness to adapt or localize icons for specific regions to optimize clarity and cultural relevance.
  5. Clear communication with stakeholders about the importance and business impact of culturally sensitive design.

❓Questions designers should ask themselves

By asking the right questions, designers can question their decisions, find areas to improve, make sure nothing is overlooked, and reduce mistakes, leading to better, more thoughtful designs.

  • Who are our target users, and what are their cultural backgrounds?
  • What symbols, colors, and visual metaphors are commonly used in each target culture?
  • Are there any cultural taboos, sensitivities, or historical connotations we should be aware of?
  • How do our chosen icons align with or diverge from cultural expectations?
  • Have we tested our icons with diverse user groups to validate comprehension and emotional response?
  • Are there opportunities to localize icons for specific regions to enhance cultural relevance?
  • How can we balance cultural adaptation with maintaining a consistent brand identity?

⚠️ Common mistakes to avoid

Learning from your mistakes is important, but many problems can indeed be predicted and avoided. Based on Cieden's collective expertise, we're sharing the most common ones.

  • Assuming symbols are universally interpreted the same way across cultures.
  • Not conducting cross-cultural research and user testing to validate icon designs.
  • Using culturally offensive or insensitive symbols or visual elements, even if unintentional.
  • Sacrificing icon usability for aesthetic purposes without considering cultural implications.
  • Ignoring cultural differences and trying to force a one-size-fits-all approach to icon design.

🛠️ Useful tools 

These tools will make your job easier and more effective.

  • Symbol Dictionary –  access a comprehensive online repository for understanding symbols across various cultures.
  • Cultural Atlas – use this tool to familiarize yourself with cultural symbols and their meanings.
  • Localized user testing – Use platforms like UserTesting to conduct region-specific tests with real users from your target culture.

🤝 Credits

Our content combines the knowledge of Cieden’s designers with insights from industry influencers. Big thanks to all the influencers for sharing awesome content!

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