Designing in Different Languages

I am not a multilingual designing professional. In fact I would call myself a neophyte when it comes to designing for languages other than my native english. However, In the time I have spent designing across multiple languages I have observed some interesting challenges and solutions that brought up discussions around the office.

While working on the Sotheby’s Anthology app we created an overview section for the entire app in seven different languages. We initially laid out each page in English, utilizing the majority of the page space with lots of breathing room for the text and images. This was all great until we started dropping in the text in different languages. Some languages didn’t fit within the templates we setup, while others felt tiny and isolated. We needed to rethink the layout with each page in mind so that it would accommodate all the varying languages and still retain our design. This means making some compromises and being flexible.

Creating a template that accepts multiple different languages, especially character based languages, is very challenging and requires planning ahead and foresight of problems that can turn up. You don’t want to set up a template, layout 20 pages, and then find out when filling in the Chinese section that it won’t work and you need to redesign the whole thing. With this in mind your template should be very dynamic and have a large range of adaptability. Looking over the copy for each language we try and first design for the language that takes up the most real estate. This can result in a looser feel for the languages that take up less space but this can be a necessary evil when designing massive page layouts.

This all brings up so many questions that pertain to each language specifically. Does bolding mean different things in different languages? Should there be larger leading for languages that use characters instead of the roman alphabet? Is the Hierarchy of certain elements more or less important for different languages?

For example, bolding key words in english might make sense for us english speakers but would it still make sense in a different culture and language? Things we take for granted, such as reading from left to right, can drastically influence a design. However, all that can be could be wasted in a language that doesn’t follow those rules.

The main takeaway of this is to test things out on a small scale and try and think things through before getting ahead of yourself. It can seem as easy as creating a template in your native language, then flowing in the text for the other languages but that would be underestimating the challenge.