Hi, every­body. So yes, I’m Senongo. I have lived all over the world, obvi­ous­ly. In three con­ti­nents now, hope­ful­ly four in the future. Throughout my life, the idea of what cul­ture is and who you are in rela­tion to the cul­ture that you’re in has always been a very strong theme.

Over the past few years, I’ve start­ed to expose, both in my work and also in giv­ing talks and writ­ing and so on…this idea of what it means for design to be respon­sive to the cul­ture that it’s speak­ing to, that it’s com­ing from is what I’d like to go over today.

There’s a researcher who’s name is Geert Hofstede. He worked at IBM for many years, and he talked and researched a lot about the ways that inter­nal busi­ness cul­tures were dif­fer­ent in dif­fer­ent offices. Those cul­tur­al vari­able can also be applied to civ­i­liza­tion, to dif­fer­ent soci­eties. So as I show you some of these dif­fer­ent vari­ables, I’d like to just point out that this isn’t a blan­ket state­ment about all peo­ple from a par­tic­u­lar cul­ture, but more an obser­va­tion about how they orga­nize them­selves as a society.

The first should be high-context and low-context cul­tures. High-context cul­tures are cul­tures that are often old­er. There’s a lot of implic­it knowl­edge, things that peo­ple in the soci­ety just know. They can read the air. Low-context cul­tures, on the oth­er hand, are soci­eties where there’s a lot of explic­it knowl­edge. They’re often younger cul­tures, and infor­ma­tion about how the soci­ety and the peo­ple in the cul­ture should behave is made very very clear.

I lived for quite a few years in Japan. Japan is a com­par­a­tive­ly high-context cul­ture. It’s very dif­fi­cult to walk off the plane and just be Japanese. In con­trast, I live in New York now, and New York is in com­par­i­son a very low-context cul­ture. You can, lit­er­al­ly, walk off the plane and as as soon as you’re on 14th Street, you’re a New Yorker.

So think­ing about dif­fer­ent cul­tures in this way is kind of an over­ar­ch­ing theme.

The first real clear vari­able that we can look at in rela­tion to design is that of high-power and low-power dis­tance. High-power dis­tance soci­eties are ones in which you refer to your boss as sir or ma’am. There’s also quite a lot respect for the aged or respect­ed mem­bers of soci­ety. Low-power dis­tance cul­tures, on the oth­er hand, you would refer to your boss as John or Jane, and things are much more equal, or so we believe.

Oscar Ruiz is a pho­tog­ra­ph­er. He took this series of pic­tures with Publicis in Mexico, and it says down at the bot­tom this image has­n’t been mod­i­fied.” This has­n’t been Photoshopped at all, which is real­ly amaz­ing. And you have this huge, huge con­trast between lux­u­ry vil­las and slums. As an American, the first thing I think to myself is, Wow, I’m real­ly glad I don’t live in a soci­ety like that.” As a Nigerian, this is all too familiar.

But then, you start to see oth­er ways that this idea can be rep­re­sent­ed. The New Yorker did an inequal­i­ty and the sub­way inter­ac­tive expe­ri­ence where they mapped the medi­an income at every New York sub­way sta­tion. So you can see Canal Street, which is where I work (I don’t live there; I only work around there.) has a medi­an income of over $150,000 a year for a house­hold. And if you take the A, C, or the E a few stops away into Brooklyn, you get to neigh­bor­hoods where the medi­an income is around $50,000 a year. Then you start to see that there isn’t a lot of dif­fer­ence between what we’re see­ing in this pic­ture and what we see in New York. So design has a way of illus­trat­ing some of these cul­tur­al vari­ables in a way that we may not expect.

The next vari­able is that of fast mes­sages ver­sus slow mes­sages. This isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly refer­ring to the speed at which the mes­sage is trans­mit­ted, but it can. Societies that love fast mes­sages are ones in which things need to be crys­tal clear, there’s not real­ly a whole lot of room to think about them, and they’re spelled out real­ly real­ly clear­ly. Societies that like slow mes­sages are often ones in which things can be a lit­tle bit more ambigu­ous, and they can take a lit­tle bit more time to permeate.

But what does that look like, again, when we start talk­ing about design? Gov​.uk is held up as this exam­ple of the best respon­sive design in the world, and right­ly so. This is a huge effort by the peo­ple of the United Kingdom to dig­i­tize their gov­ern­ment and to make infor­ma­tion clear an acces­si­ble. I can think of no faster mes­sage than a peo­ple say­ing we’re going to pay tax­es, we’re going to pay mon­ey out of our own pock­ets, to make our infor­ma­tion from our gov­ern­ment clear­er.” This is a real­ly pow­er­ful exam­ple of a soci­ety that val­ues that fast messaging.

Another vari­able is that of col­lec­tivism ver­sus indi­vid­u­al­ism. Collectivist societies—I lived in Japan again for many years, and it’s very much a col­lec­tivist society—you think of the group first and then your­self. Individualist soci­eties, like the US and oth­er places, you think of your­self first. And that’s okay, it’s just a cul­tur­al vari­able. But we can start to see this reflect­ed in the research that we do, and the way that we speak to these peo­ple, as designers.

I found this real­ly real­ly amaz­ing sto­ry some years ago. A researcher in India, she was a direc­tor at a UX firm, was doing some tests on a web site to buy train tick­ets. So she got some women togeth­er and asked them some ques­tions and did some user expe­ri­ence test­ing, as you do. And she found that the infor­ma­tion she was get­ting from them was pret­ty sparse. They don’t real­ly want to answer the ques­tions, they did­n’t want to tell her what was wrong, and she real­ized that this soci­ety was not the type where you would open­ly crit­i­cize some­one else’s work. That’s just kind of the way that it was where she was.

So she took a lit­tle bit of a dif­fer­ent tack. She said, Okay. I’d like you to imag­ine that you are in a Bollywood movie and your daugh­ter is get­ting mar­ried in the next town tomor­row. You’ve just found out that the man she’s going to mar­ry is a hor­ri­ble per­son. He has anoth­er fam­i­ly in anoth­er town, he is a thief, and maybe even a mur­der­er. You need to get to that next town as soon as you can to stop this wed­ding.” And imme­di­ate­ly, when put in this fic­tion­al sit­u­a­tion, they were released from this need to be col­lec­tivists and they could speak on an indi­vid­ual lev­el to what they would do to make this inter­face better.

The idea is that peo­ple want to be com­fort­able with these cul­tur­al ref­er­ences, both in our research, and also in our design.

Ambiguity and direct­ness real­ly speak for them­selves, but this cul­tur­al vari­able can again be reflect­ed a lot in the dif­fer­ent ways that we design and the ways that we com­mu­ni­cate with each oth­er. One of the most pow­er­ful exam­ples that I’ve seen recent­ly is at the [Center for Civil and Human Rights]. For those of you who are not aware, in the 1960s the Civil Rights Movement hap­pened in the US, and it was a pret­ty ter­ri­fy­ing time for the coun­try. One of the ways in which black and African-American activists tried to inte­grate the coun­try was to go into lunch coun­ters. At that time, the cafes and the lunch coun­ters were seg­re­gat­ed. Blacks could not order any­thing. And they would sit down. People would come up behind them, scream obscen­i­ties, throw things on them, shit and food, what­ev­er you can think of; threat­en to stab them with forks, and they had to sit there, impas­sive, and wait for their food. And you can imag­ine how dif­fi­cult that would be. 

A man and woman sitting at a simulated lunch counter facing a mirror. They are wearing headphones and have their hands placed flat on the counter

What the [Center] did was try to make this real, in a very very direct way. This is an exhib­it that they have. You wear head­phones, and you can hear peo­ple scream­ing at you in the head­phones. You leave your hands on the table, and as long as you don’t flinch, then the timer con­tin­ues count­ing down. I think this guy here has got­ten to nine sec­onds so far. This is a real­ly real­ly pow­er­ful way to use audio, video, and graph­ic design to illus­trate what the soci­ety went through in a very very direct way.

All of these vari­ables, you can imag­ine soci­eties that they come from, places where some things are more true than oth­ers, and the ques­tion then aris­es, is there a place for us to appro­pri­ate some of these cul­tur­al vari­ables, to take them from the places where they were orig­i­nal­ly and move them into our work?

The answer is yes, but.

Some years ago, Air France did this visu­al­ly stun­ning cam­paign. You can see the poster there on the right. The rea­son that it was so suc­cess­ful and appeared every­where was they were tak­ing images from old­er Air France posters done prob­a­bly in the 70s and so on, and here you see an image adver­tis­ing flights to French West Africa. We have the sav­age and his sav­age kid hav­ing killed anoth­er even more sav­age beast, wear­ing noth­ing, and the only piece of tech­nol­o­gy that we see is that tiny lit­tle sil­ver Air France plane in the top corner.

Now, you can get flights to Dakkar for €675 and the ad that we have now seems very dif­fer­ent but, in fact, they’ve appro­pri­at­ed West African cul­ture in a way which does­n’t make sense. We see the woman wear­ing gele (the head wrap), we see her face paint­ed in an almost trib­al man­ner. But at the same time, she is White European or per­haps a White American, and that cul­tur­al clash means that they’ve appro­pri­at­ed some­thing that they prob­a­bly should­n’t have. The ques­tion aris­es of why they could­n’t find an African mod­el to take the picture.

Successful appro­pri­a­tion punch­es up. It does­n’t punch down. It speaks truth to pow­er rather than from it. So we can start to see this reflect­ed in good ways. One of my favorite movies is Blade Runner. I like it not so much because I love sci­ence fic­tion or robots, but more because I want to imag­ine what that soci­ety was actu­al­ly like. So as I was think­ing about this I decid­ed to say to myself, what hap­pens if I try to appro­pri­ate a piece of a cul­ture that does­n’t exist yet. How do I punch up” in that way?

So I start­ed to build these let­ter­forms and cre­at­ed a whole type set, and you can see inside all of these there are pieces of ani­mals, antlers, fish scaled, and oth­er things which are pieces of these crea­tures that did­n’t exist any­more in this dystopi­an future. One of the key points about Blade Runner is that ani­mals are almost all extinct, and only the rich can own them. So what does that look like, when you start putting this into a graph­ic design project?

Here you can see the zebra and the macaw, I believe, but real­ly is this appro­pri­at­ing a piece of Blade Runner?

One of the last artists that I real­ly look up to is Yinka Shonibare. He is a Nigerian-British artist, very very very pop­u­lar, and he uses African wax print fab­ric in his work. The rea­son that this is inter­est­ing comes back to this idea of appro­pri­a­tion. African wax print fab­ric is not actu­al­ly African, or it was­n’t. Wax was this tech­nol­o­gy that was devel­oped in Southeast Asia dur­ing the Dutch East India Company days. This was then found,” dis­cov­ered if you will, by the Dutch East India Company and oth­er European cor­po­ra­tions, brought back to Europe, mass-produced with cheap cot­ton (from the colonies) and then sold back into the major ports in Africa and oth­er places, and it real­ly took off. 

So here you have an artist who is British, whose coun­try par­tic­i­pat­ed in this, and also Nigerian, whose coun­try ben­e­fit­ed from some of this design, and he is recloth­ing European and Western icons with this African wax print fab­ric. So the lev­els of appro­pri­a­tion get pret­ty deep here, and it’s real­ly real­ly inter­est­ing to see and think about.

Approximations of astronaut suits made of heavily-patterned fabric hanging from the ceiling of a gallery space.

Another one of his more famous works reclothes astro­nauts. I want­ed to be an astro­naut when I was a kid. Unfortunately my eyes were nev­er that good. But here we see a typ­i­cal white male occu­pa­tion. I imag­ine astro­nauts as white dudes. But he’s reclothed them in Nigerian wax print fab­ric, and all of a sud­den they’re African, and it’s very very clever.

So to leave this off, you can build this real cul­tur­al depth into your projects. It’s pos­si­ble, if you do it respect­ful­ly, and you think about the vari­ables that you’re nav­i­gat­ing as you speak to your cus­tomers and as you speak to your audience.

Often peo­ple will say, You know, this kind of sounds a lit­tle bit dif­fi­cult,” and it is. And peo­ple also say to me, Well, I just want to live in a world where this isn’t nec­es­sary.” Which, I had that com­ment, and it was an inter­est­ing com­ment because it was some­body who per­haps did­n’t under­stand the pow­er of this for minori­ties, for Africans, peo­ple who tra­di­tion­al­ly are not seen as the top of soci­ety. And in this increas­ing­ly glob­al world, we do need design that’s cul­tur­al­ly respon­sive and that speaks to our audi­ence in a way that they’re famil­iar with.

Thank you.

Further Reference

Description at The Conference’s site of the ses­sion this talk was part of.

The orig­i­nal video for this pre­sen­ta­tion can be found at The Conference’s site.