How does Culture Influence Design? Comparing Chinese and Western UI/UX

Sep 28, 2021
5 minutes Read
Delve into how cultural contexts shape UI/UX, contrasting Chinese vs Western design principles and their deep cultural influence.
How does Culture Influence Design? Comparing Chinese and Western UI/UX

When people talk about liking or disliking websites, they’re commenting about UI/UXUser Interface and User Experience. Some people think these preferences are a matter of personal aesthetic taste, but there are preferences at the cultural level, too. The fact is, culture influences design, so it’s no surprise that culture is an important factor in UI/UX. While Westerners may view Chinese websites full of buttons, tabs and choices as “busy,” “cluttered,” or “hard to navigate,” the Chinese sensibility sees them as superior to the emptier, more minimalist screens in Europe and the United States. To the Chinese eye, abundance in UI/UX is a good thing, and can even be seen as an extension of the cultural life of busy, wealthy Chinese cities. In what follows, we present some of the main differences between Chinese and Western design and how they came to be.

Filled Screens vs. White Space

Western UI/UX gives major importance to white space. Some designers believe it’s even more important than the content it envelops, arguing that it focuses the viewer’s gaze in a pointed, but restful way. In contrast, Chinese UI/UX tends to fill the available space with words and calls-to-action, leaving little, if any, white space on the screen. Far from a design flaw, this Chinese design sensibility stems from the underlying cultural notion that space is limited and precious. Businesses prefer to showcase as many products and as much information as they can on landing pages, since emptiness implies there’s something missing and risks appearing inferior.

Different Writing Systems: Logogrammatic vs. Phonetic

Linguistic differences are crucial to understanding cultural differences in UI/UX, since the ways users navigate websites depend on the ways people are accustomed to reading and scanning information in their own languages. The Chinese writing system is logogrammatic, based on written characters. English, in contrast, is phonetic, and uses letters to represents sounds. Because each Chinese character is made up of many strokes fitting into rectangles of the same size (up to 43 in one character, though the average is 10) and there are no spaces between Chinese characters, Chinese text can appear to Westerners as being quite dense. English text might look more spacious, but it needs more screen territory to present the same amount of information. This information density gives Chinese designers more layout options, but the lack of differentiating elements, like italics, capitalization and spacing, can make it hard to impose a hierarchy on the information. That may explain why Chinese UI/UX breaks relies more on banners, cards and images to break up the page.

Information Architecture

That preference for abundance also means that Chinese apps tend to offer categories of choices in no particular order. There’s not always an obvious hierarchy among elements, or a clear logic behind the ordering of icons, categories, and links. In fact, the placement often relies on click rates or ad revenue. Homepages also contain a multitude of features in a bid to attract and keep users. For this reason, many Chinese apps that started as single-function apps have started to offer a range of additional functions and currently operate more like platforms. The incredibly popular WeChat, for instance, started as a chat tool and now offers an app store, social networking, food services, digital payment, and much more.

Different Design Histories

The second industrial revolution in Europe led to the Bauhaus movement in Europe, one of the most influential movements in modern design, marked by simple geometric shapes, clean lines and a minimalist aesthetic. China’s history led to a different set of design priorities. Commercial graphic design emerged later as a profession, and started with advertising that incorporated techniques from traditional Chinese decorative arts. Even today, Chinese consumers tend to prefer more bold and lively designs that might be described as pictorial and decorative.

Different Versions of Simplicity and Excess

The streets of wealthy metropolises like Shanghai, Shenzhen and Beijing may seem excessive or overwhelming to some. The street life is bold, loud and crowded – a measure of their liveliness, industriousness and wealth. The Chinese experience of navigating through the busy urban expanse translates well into eCommerce interfaces. Online and offline lives enjoy a similar level of excitement, density and layering. Visual excess, in this case, aligns with the cultural experience of the city, its urban and economic abundance. In contrast, modern versions of wealth in the West are often more minimalist, exclusive and spacious.

The Chinese population also tends to believe “the more, the merrier.” This penchant for more finds its way into UI/UX as well. For many people in China, having more correlates with value. An app bursting with features and buttons can appear more promising than a clean, minimalistic interface. To the Western eye, a jampacked screen might seem chaotic, cluttered and even cheap. In China, however, that product has far more chance of success in the market.

For Brand Success, Culture Matters

The best designers aren’t married to any one design approach and know that the best UI/UX takes context into consideration. Comparing Chinese and Western design styles simply to declare one of them “bad” or “good” is culturally insensitive in any case. The differences stem from their design histories, writing systems and cultural beliefs.

More than anything, businesses and brands that want their designs to drive sales need to take customer preferences into account. Ascribing to the West-centric view that Chinese UI/UX “looks bad” seems especially foolish when you consider the incredible sales returns generated by Chinese-designed platforms during its shopping festivals. In 2017, for instance, the Taobao eCommerce platform took in a whopping USD25.3 billion over a single day of Alibaba’s Singles Day shopping event. In contrast, US sales over the 2016 Thanksgiving weekend (from Black Friday to Cyber Monday) took in USD 12.8 billion, about half that amount.