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We know that colors represent different things in different cultures, and selecting the wrong color can have unexpected and unwanted effect on how we present our organization. Gaming sites such as Steam, EA Games and Ubisoft have chosen black as their background color. The meaning of black in western cultures is authority, death, eternity, evil and mourning. These words sums up what we (in the western world) expect from violent gaming. In China black means celebration and to Native American and Asian cultures black means self-cultivation, which may not be what emotions gaming sites intended to convey to its users.

United Nation, World Trade Organization and World Health Organization uses combinations of gray, blue and white background colors. White represents heaven, luxury and marriage in the western world but death in Chinese and Hindu cultures. Most of the cultures consider white to represent purity and truce.

Gray is a respectful color in western cultures and in Japan gray represents modesty and reliable. Blue is freedom, loyalty, rationality and unhappiness in the western cultures and virtue and wisdom in Eastern Europe.

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Choosing gray and blue background colors seams safe but black and white seams culturally unsafe to use on multinational websites, at least if you follow the chart strict. Or does it really matter? Should a multinational website background color be a conscious choice?

Reference: What Colors Mean in Different Cultures

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In western cultures black is also: Modernity, power, sophistication, formality, elegance, wealth, mystery, style. Colours always have negative and positive things associated with them. –  Igor-G Jan 8 '13 at 9:02
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@Benny do you have any evidence (anecdotal or otherwise) of anyone being offended (culturally) by a site's background colour? –  CJ Franken Jan 8 '13 at 9:07
    
@Igor-G good point. I believe all around the world there's no simple black and white to a colours meaning (pun intended) –  AndroidHustle Jan 8 '13 at 9:08
    
@CJFranken No, not really. And that't the point of the question. Does background color matter, or not? –  Benny Skogberg MCSA Jan 8 '13 at 9:10
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The website's color theme should respect the visual identity of the entity it represents and ideally draw its color theme from that, ideally so, from a refined version for different culture's environments. Visual designers creating a corporate identity for a multinational will have (hopefully) considered the implications of their choices across different cultural backgrounds. –  kontur Jan 8 '13 at 11:37

5 Answers 5

up vote 16 down vote accepted

I would say yes. To quote this research article

Different colors mean different things to people in different cultures. For example, Ricks et al(1974) give an example of a company with packaging having green label was not well received by some Malay- sians, because to them green symbolized the jungle with its dangers and diseases. However, green is a color of fertility in Egypt, a color symbolizing safety in U.S and a color that indicates criminality in France (Barber and Badre, 1998). Similarly in western cultures white is the color for the bride’s gown, while in India widows wear white. Thus use of specific colors on the websites has to be congruent with the needs and expectations of a spe-cific country.

Here is a tabular representation of how colors are precieved in different cultures taken from this article color and culture.

enter image description here

The center for Intercultural learning has this to say about the use of colors in websites from a common perspective and what colors are safe from an international perspective

Within the cultural colour usage study, we investigated colours chosen for the Webpage background, table background, graphics, text, imaging, as well as overall usage of colour in the visual Web interface design. The underlying assumption was that the Internet, as a medium of communication, presents an opportunity for designers to truly express their colour choices since the choice of colours for Webpage is not constrained by cost or technical limitations that are frequently imposed when working with print media. Interestingly enough, in our colour usage study we found that a palette of about ten colours is commonly and preferentially used across all countries studied. These colours include white, black, shades of grey, shades of blue, and a light yellow colour. We named this colour palette the "international colours palette." We believe that colours from this palette could be used by designers to develop "international" user interfaces by choosing design colours that will be appropriate for a multitude of cultures. For example, this approach could be applicable in designing Web-based e-learning applications for a broad audience of international learners. When localization is required, other country-specific colour palettes that we discovered could be utilised to design an interface that will be attractive and culturally appropriate for the local audience.

With regards to an example of a well known brand which customizes its websites color schemes to respect local customs, Mcdonalds is a very good example.

Mcdonalds has different website design patterns for different countries depending upon how the color red is precieved in that country. For example in India, the color red is used as an example of purity and hence McDonald's follows a color scheme which is very reddish in color as shown by this screenshot

enter image description here

However if you look at the Eastern countries Red is denoted as dangerous or evil and Mcdonald's reduces the red tone in the color just keeping enough for the branding

enter image description here

The screenshot above is the screen shot of the English page of Mcdonalds of Kuwait

However Mcdonalds to give them credit not only looks at it from a color perspective but also from the perspective of how users in those specific countries prefer information to be presented to them. To quote the article What McDonald’s can show us about global internet marketing

For example, Scandinavian and northern European cultures tend to prefer more minimalist, text-based designs. In contrast, in China and India, websites tend to be brighter, bolder and contain more banners, pop-ups and videos.

Another factor to think about in global internet marketing is the amount of information and graphics on a page. This Chinese site might appear “crowded” to Western viewers. In fact, a study by the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology found Chinese and Korean users tended to take in more information than American users when scanning a webpage in 25 seconds. They also registered more "areas of interest" and were less likely to use a sequential viewing pattern.

Another good example comes from this article

EuroDisney made a booboo when it created a multimillion dollar advertising campaign with tons of purple. For the Catholics of Western Europe, purple signifies the crucifixion, and it's a color of mourning rather than a happy place as Disney sites are known to be. The result? EuroDisney flopped.

I strongly recommend reading this excellent article ​​​​​Brands and Localization - Drive Global Brand engagement as it gives an excellent overview of localization from a Brand perspective

This is a good article about how different colors contribute to different color moods

Some other links to look at:

Tips on creating websites for International Audiences

Web designs that communicate across cultures

Cultural sensitivity in business

Culturability: The Merging of Culture and Usability

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I'll update this response when I get some time –  Mervin Johnsingh Jan 8 '13 at 11:32
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+1 for a concrete example. Color does affect user experience in some sense, but I think this is more part of corporate identiy considerations than user experience design. –  kontur Jan 8 '13 at 11:39
    
Kontur I'll have to update this answer later, the little research I did clearly pointed out how Mcdonalds clearly designs with its user base in mind and how color plays into its design –  Mervin Johnsingh Jan 8 '13 at 11:40
    
Hehe, black is evil everywhere! –  Kramp Jan 8 '13 at 11:41
    
You may be interested in browsing historical snapshots of the India and Kuwait McDonalds pages (I used archive.org/web/web.php ) - there are examples that contradict the current background colour choices/reasoning. –  CJ Franken Jan 8 '13 at 12:08

I discovered an interesting special-issue (Aug 2008) of the "International Journal of Design" that focused on the cultural aspects of interaction design. There is a lot of interesting material in the issue, but one article in particular looked at the use of colour (among other "cultural markers") to compare government, NGO, Malaysian and Chinese websites ("Political and Cultural Representation in Malaysian Websites"). A short extract:

This paper uses Semiotic Structural Analysis to seek out and map the ‘Cultural Markers’ of language/typography, layout, colour, pattern and image in order to discover the code and structure of the existing Malaysian websites. This analysis was inspired by Hoftstede’s (1980) landmark cultural research in which Power Distance (PD) emerged as a powerful force in Malaysian culture; and Aaron Marcus’s (2002) approach to multidimensional web-interface analysis.

I found the culturally inclusive goal of the study to be significant:

This research project is concerned with the issue of social and cultural integration and the human computer interface, where culture includes not only ethnicity but also customary behaviors, values and communicative styles. The influence of cultural representation on the web user is a complicated variable, because it is difficult to establish which aspects of culture influence user behavior and to what extent cultural background influences understanding. The multicultural interface is about making websites an effective form of communication, in terms of recognition of cultural differences and sharing comprehensible communications.

Designers should always be sensitive to semiotics. However, I believe people may find inappropriate use of culturally significant symbols more offensive than culturally significant background colour (I can only speculate though). Perhaps cognitive load should take precedence, with the option to switch to alternate (culture-specific) themes upon request.

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It's a very nice study, a good article and has many good points. Although, as a study goes, has serious flaws regarding many aspects like language, respect from the government to different groups, behaviours, etc. Still, the point or colours and the reason why you choose that article are perfectly valid and help to exemplify the relevance of choosing the right combination of colours. –  PatomaS Feb 22 at 7:54

Yes.

Because every color should be a conscious choice. But not necessarily because different cultures have different meaning for colors. Mervin brought up the example of McDonalds. However, this is what the article he refers to has to say about it:

Global internet marketing doesn’t just mean translating the language. Different cultures have different preferences in terms of color, design, images and amount of information per page. Adapting your website, and taking these into account, can ensure it creates the right impression.

I'd say that is entirely correct. But this means that you have to take culture into account when producing a design. Any design. A professional designer already knows that, offcourse.

Question remains, should color or more specifically background color be treated any different from other design elements. No offcourse not. Here are two more examples from McDonalds: McDonalds Switzerland McDonalds in Switzerland

McDonalds in India McDonalds in India

Clearly, the differences are not just color. Everything about the look&feel is different, as a reflection of vastly different cultures. You can't just single out one color, even if it is the background.

If it were so simple that we just had to follow the 'guidelines', then Apple wouldn't be selling many iPhones in Asia:

Apple Asia

After all, Apple uses a dominant white background, which is associated with death and mourning in China and Japan. I'm pretty sure Apple could have used white in a way that might offend Chinese people. But in the whole of this particular design, apparently the white is not perceived as a carrier of negative meaning.

So you have to take the whole design into account, not merely a background color. Furthermore, I wouldn't worry about the meaning of color too much when designing a global website. I think different people are well aware of their different cultures and are prepared to give you some leeway. As an example: 'flickr' means 'gay' in the Dutch language. Nevertheless, flickr.com is quite popular as a photo sharing service in the Netherlands. No Dutch person in his right mind will associate 'flickr.com' with gay content. Unless they have no clue what flickr.com is for, offcourse, which will only make them look stupid. Similarly, I don't think any Chinese will take an iPhone as an instrument for an undertaker.

It is about context. Not just about single colors.

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One thing that sticks out to me as I read through all these articles regarding colored backgrounds, especially white. People are used to receiving information off of a white background. It's the color of paper, I would say world wide. Is there a culture in the world that avoids the use of white paper? If so I am not aware of them. I look at all these charts that indicate the cultural significance of white, and no one points out that in those cultures they go to school and read off of a white background. This goes on for years, and years. This is one significant thing about this color, people are used to reading off of it. When a background color is different, people notice, white behind text, people don't.

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Welcome! This is more of a related question than an answer to OP's question. As such, it would be best as a comment or perhaps it's own question! –  Charles Wesley May 31 '13 at 20:12

In China, Webpage background mostly white. It is Chinese people willing to accept the color. enter image description here

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Thanks 佚名风, and welcome to UX.SE! Great to see real proof. Are there any background colors that should be avoided in China? –  Benny Skogberg MCSA Feb 22 at 6:07
    
In China Webpage background color, no restrictions, mainly to see the content. But should avoid being too dazzling colors. –  佚名风 Feb 22 at 10:37

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