I've been wondering about this for some time, are there any libraries or resources online that show what connotations are attached to any given design element from a cultural perspective?

I am aware that connotations are used primarily with text, not visual elements. However I use it because it is "the subjective cultural or emotional association of...". The subjective cultural part is what I am interested in. I am looking for research/information on the different views on common website design elements in different cultures.

Let's take the swastika as an example, if I were to use fields/colors in such a way that the website layout or design might represent a swastika this would cause very different reactions from the viewers of different cultures. Most westerners would of course think of horrible things, but the symbol has in the past been used all over the world in association with plenty of good things, if my memory serves it is used as a symbol for temples in some Asian regions.

Obviously that is a very extreme example, I am thinking someone must have applied semantic differential to regularly featured design elements of websites, right? How would a circular website design be perceived in any given culture? Maybe a TopDown, RightToLeft and LeftToRight culture would view a circular design the same?

In the case of circular design my question would be "What is the connotation of circular design in any given culture?"

Examples of common elements I am interested in are: - Popup boxes - Colors - Menus - Responsive design - Headers

I hope all this made some sense. Let me know if I can clarify anything.

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    While it doesn't not provide the information you are looking for about connotations; the intercultural nature of these icons may prove useful thenounproject.com/collections/ocha-humanitarian-icons Sep 16, 2012 at 2:31
  • @Fresheyeball Thanks! That is a very interesting resource, while it isn't the research I was looking for it is certainly in line with what the spirit of my question. Having been away to the other side of the planet for the past 6 months this intercultural aspect of user interface and user experiences have gotten a whole new meaning to me.
    – Alendri
    Sep 16, 2012 at 9:01

1 Answer 1


Interesting and important question. I had a related thought on my question Mirror top navigation order between left to right-languages and right to left-languages?, where you actually should mirror content, and not just translate navigation on a multi-lingual site.

On colors there are some considerations to do for white and red, as Christian Arno explains:

However, there are also cultural considerations to bear in mind when it comes to color. In some cultures certain colors will have different meanings which should be borne in mind. For example, whilst in western cultures the color white is associated with weddings and cleanliness, in some Asian cultures it has strong connotations with death.

Similarly, red represents ‘danger’ or ‘passion’ in North America and Western Europe but it can mean ‘purity’ in India. Orange is often the color associated with the fall in the US, but in Northern Ireland, for example, it holds religious connotations.

But we can’t avoid red and white all together in web site design. Just be careful where we color elements of our site. White for background color shouldn’t be a problem, but white on a drawing of a female dress, might mean trouble in Asia.

A Swedish journalist went to Japan in December in the 80’s unaware of the fact that white represents death. It was Saint Lucia’s celebration in Sweden (very local tradition) where young women dress in white, having candles in their hair, singing Christmas songs early in the morning. It’s very popular in Sweden so he thought he was doing a good thing when he in the early morning on Saint Lucia’s day knocked on the door to his Japanese friends, dressed in white with a candle, singing Christmas song. They thought death was coming to take them away from life.

Facebook like button

Facebook uses a very familiar like button, which is great in the western world, but have another meaning in other parts of the world as Christian continues:

As with color, it’s important to consider the cultural connotations of images and text on your website and a straight replication between one country and another is not necessarily appropriate. For example, a thumbs-up gesture is a positive sign in most western cultures but it can be very offensive in parts of West Africa, South America and the Middle East.

Acronyms are also another factor, but not necessarily a connotation aspect:

Take the Tourism Federation of Wisconsin, for example – their acronym used to be WTF until they wisely changed it to TFW.

Using experts on the matter might be a very good investment.

Reference: Tips on creating websites for International Audiences, by Christian Arno

  • Thanks! Great read, and exactly the kind of points that have been floating around in my head, making me finally ask this question. I am assuming someone somewhere has done research on this and that my probing searches simply can't find it. There is a fair amount of info about Colors and their meanings, but not really other web-design related visual elements such as the top navigation you mention. But of course mirroring the navigation will force you to rethink the whole "make it always the same to make it recognizable", another aspect to this.
    – Alendri
    Sep 13, 2012 at 8:19
  • @Alendri The site mirroring was an actual case - and is still a problem on several multinational company websites. I think the "Thumbs Up" notation is especially interesting and wonder if Facebook ever will do anything about it. If you try Google Scholar there are plenty of material availbale, some paid for, but other for free. Take a look at scholar.google.com/… Sep 13, 2012 at 8:30
  • Indeed, symbolism and gestures, like thumbs up and similar are very very subjective, I take care to ask when I visit a new country or region. When I want to gesture "come here" I usually have the palm up and flex my fingers, where the Thai generally have the palm down, which for me means go away or stay away. Thanks for the link!
    – Alendri
    Sep 13, 2012 at 8:37

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