Essays & Articles


Does Culture Matter for Product Design?

Originally published on the Industrial Design magazine,

Once upon a time, when I visited other countries, I would head to the department stores so I could experience the wide cultural variations in such things as cookware, cutlery and tools for crafts and gardening. Today, I seldom do this anymore because all the stores look the same. Rice cookers and woks may have originated in Japan and China, but today they can be found in kitchen appliance stores all over the world. Italian, German and American appliances are for sale in Asia. Asian appliances are for sale in Italy, Germany and America. The country of design and manufacture no longer matters much. A television set, automobile, mobile phone, camera or refrigerator looks the same whether made in Asia, North America or Europe.

I have a collection of photos taken around the world of stores, restaurants and street scenes. I sometimes use them in my lectures, asking the audience to state where the picture was taken. People respond with great confidence, but they are invariably wrong. Why? In what city—or country—was the photograph in Figure 1 taken? It could be anywhere. I can find store displays similar to that shown in Figure 1 in Asia, Europe or the United States. Even the language visible in my photographs provides surprisingly little information: Signs in Chinese, English, French, Korean or German are displayed throughout the world. One street scene from Hong Kong shows less Chinese characters than pictures I have taken in San Francisco, New York or London: most people judge the photos to be from Western Europe. Where did Figure 1 come from? A department store in Daejeon, South Korea.

The same lack of diversity extends to the training of designers. When I visit the top design schools across the world, I find that their curricula and methods are similar. I find more differences in the curricula of schools within a country than between the United States, Hong Kong, Korea, England and the Netherlands.

You can see this in mobile phones. Traditional phones varied in size and appearance across the world, so that phones for teen-age Japanese girls were different than ones for Japanese salarymen, which in turn were different than the Blackberry loved by Western business and financial workers. But all the phones were similar in the features they provided and the way they operated. Today, with the advent of smartphones, there are only three major manufacturers of the operating systems: Google (Android), Apple (iOS) and Microsoft (Windows Phone). The iPhone and iPad are unchanged to reflect culture except for language, yet they are incredibly popular all around the world. Android phones are available from handset providers in Europe, Asia and the United States (the most popular phones come from Korea and Taiwan). These are all independent of culture. The same story applies for phones running Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7.5 and 8: they are independent of culture whether the handset comes from Europe or Asia.

Does culture matter for product design? The examples I just talked about would seem to indicate that for the world of mass-produced products—that is, for the world of industrial design—culture might be far less important than we might have expected. Is this really true, and if so, is this a positive or negative finding?Implications for Design

A few decades ago, I believed that cultural differences were fundamental. Moreover, they were exciting and interesting. Today, I believe that cultural differences are still just as fundamental and exciting but they primarily exist in governing social interaction, the types of foods that are eaten and stylistic preferences. Modern products are designed to support particular activities, so that it is the activity itself that controls how they should be designed and used. Traditional activities are heavily determined by culture, but modern office practices, manufacturing, communication, financial accounts and transportation are dominated by the technology used to accomplish them, or in the cases of financial accounts, by world-wide standards intended to make transactions and accounting uniform. As a result, many of our activities are determined by the technologies we use, such as the automobile, computer, cellphone, train or airplane, or by the need to interact smoothly with other countries and cultures across the world. Once the technology determines the activity, the influence of culture dissipates.

These observations have important implications for design. Modern products are driven by technology, which in turn dictates the activity. Designers talk a lot about Human-Centered Design where it is important to design for the needs of the person. Well, this doesn’t work when the goal is millions of people all across the world. Computers and software, phones and applications, automobiles, kitchen appliances and housewares are intended for consumption by millions. Human-Centered Design can no longer apply: what does it mean to discover the precise needs of millions of people? Instead, I have argued for Activity-Centered Design, where the activity dictates the design. (See my papers on this topic referenced at the end of this essay.)Technology dictates the activity. In turn, the activity dictates the design. When the design is appropriate for the technology, people accept it, regardless of culture. Consider musical instruments as a good example. Many are difficult to learn, such as the violin that requires an awkward, injury-prone posture and hand configuration. Consider the awkward fingering of musical instruments across the world. People learn these with incredible skill, not because they fit the body, but because the designs seem quite appropriate to the technology, and therefore to the activity.There are regional differences. Food and eating provide dramatic contrasts with different cultures adopting very different behavior. Some use silverware, some chopsticks, and some use fingers or bread. Some cultures prefer more ornamentation than others, so that, for example, products intended for East Asia display decorative scrolls and artwork. When the same products are sold elsewhere in the world, they are often identical except for the removal of the ornamentation. Style differences? Yes. Fundamental differences? No.

People drive very differently in different parts of the world, from safety-conscious, law-abiding drivers in the United States, Japan, and parts of Europe, to the free-wheeling driving style of other countries, where the death and injury rates soar. But the design and control of the cars themselves are still done the same way, whether the cars are used in Delhi or Milan, London or Saigon.

The ways in which people interact differs considerably around the world, so much so that the traveling businessperson is often advised to take a quick course on proper etiquette for the countries to be visited. Nonetheless, the technologies that support the interaction are the same: telephones, e-mail and text messages, business cards, and the importance of business meals. Behavior differs, but the products are similar.

Responses From the Design Community

I posted an early version of the above argument to the e-mail discussion list “PhD-Design.” I received an enormous number of responses, many of which were extremely long, thoughtful and detailed.

Many of the objections to my conclusions came from the design research community. This community has been heavily influenced by anthropology, and one of their core beliefs is that understanding and respecting cultural differences is of critical importance. Peoples’ activities are highly determined by culture, they argued, so that even when people use similar products, they create very different experiences out of them. The design researchers pointed out that different people used the same products in many different ways, attempting to fit them into their real needs. If designers could convince companies to focus upon what people actually do with the products available to them, they could produce products better attuned to real needs.

One set of critiques pointed out that although the products might be similar, there often were variations tuned to cultural sensitivities. Moreover, if I were to go into homes and observe how the products were used, I would detect great variability in how they were used and the kinds of modifications (workarounds) people construct to make the products fit their needs.

A more forceful critique emphasized that my interpretations reflect my very Western, science- and business-based education and background. Thus, as François Nsenga explained in a long, thoughtful note, because of my “place and context of up-bringing, education, professional practice, and socialization, together with the resultant mindset, all these cultural factors do not predispose” me to understand the “cultural reality of concern.” Those who come from very different cultural backgrounds see the phenomena quite differently. This critique ended by pointing out that “no one knows as yet the exact amount and extent of potential harmful and detrimental effects caused by ‘homogenization’ of artifacts, neither at the individual level, nor at levels of regions and of the entire planet.” In other words, the loss of cultural diversity should be compared with the loss of biological diversity.


I submit that my argument for the lack of cultural diversity in both mass-produced products and the education of industrial designers is accurate, but it can lead to two different interpretations.

One is that standardization of many aspects of life across the different cultures of the world is valuable. It brings all the peoples of the earth together, enabling better interaction, communications and understanding. This is the traditional Western, technological view of the role of technology, industrialization, and the future.

A second interpretation is that the homogenization is disturbing. It diminishes the richness of life, the importance of historical roots, ritual and custom. Cultural diversity is a powerful, positive influence and we, as responsible designers, should pay much attention to how people behave in their environments, supporting the richness of cultural diversity. It is not the product that is important: it is how it is used, in context.

Design education may be the same across the world because many design professors are trained in the same few universities across the world. They all belong to what one might call “the design-education establishment” of people who share similar design philosophies, heavily influenced by western traditions of mass-production and the requirements of large, multinational firms. This is especially true at the PhD level, given the limited number of institutions offering PhDs in design.

It is important to distinguish mass-produced, industrial design from crafts. Crafts reflect centuries or millennia of customs and behavior, and as a result, items produced by craftspeople are apt to be close fits to the demands of the culture. But the subtitle of the marvelous book by Ranjan and Ranjan of the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, India, Crafts of India: Handmade in India, indicates the reason for this distinction. The critical word is “Handmade.” Handmade crafts reflect the needs of the people for whom they are crafted. Mass-produced products are intended for use by millions of people around the world.

But just because design training is similar across the world does not mean that the results should be the same. After all, modern design education emphasizes the need to design for the needs of people. Students are increasingly being trained in observational skills, design research methods, and rapid prototyping and refinement. These could be considered to be refinements on the informal ways by which people have refined craft products over the millennia. These methods should enhance sensitivity to cultural variations and people’s needs.

Note that the arguments of this essay are specifically relevant to industrial and interaction designers. So even were one to accept that the impact of culture upon mass-produced products is minimal, other areas of design are apt to be far more sensitive to culture. Because social interaction is still the major source of cultural variation, I would expect service design to vary considerably from culture to culture. As social networks pervade the communication and internet space, they too will vary with culture. Other areas of design will have their own special sensitivities to culture.

Finally, how much of this argument derives from my own cultural biases? I’ve been educated in the West with a technical and scientific education. I’ve been a faculty member of major research universities in departments of psychology and cognitive science, electrical engineering and computer science, and industrial design. My experiences in business include positions as senior executive at large, multinational consumer electronic companies. Would someone with a very different background and education have reached the same conclusions?

I conclude with the same question with which I started: How much should culture matter for product design?