Designing for a Non-English Audience

Jun 24


Felicia Bratu

Felicia Bratu

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In an increasingly global market, communication across cultural and language borders is critical for businesses. Consequently, designing for an international audience is a critical skill for today’s graphic designers.


Having worked as a digital publishing specialist at a large corporation at my previous job,Designing for a Non-English Audience Articles I did not think being in charge of foreign language typesetting would be too difficult.  After all, the layout and the images are already prepared and I only need to flow in the text - how hard could that be?  I was sure that a simple Copy and Paste, or text importation, would do everything.  This was my point of view when I initially began managing DTP projects in different languages. 

Was I ever wrong!  Through experience, I've discovered that foreign language typesetting can be very challenging - even when using the right software and platform, or having the help of a very experienced foreign typesetter. Through solving the problems encountered in the process, I also developed a new appreciation for simple, "internationalized" designs that are much easier to "localize" than others. Many problems can be avoided if the graphic designer keeps in mind that the document may be later translated into other languages. Sometimes, an attractive and very professional design in English can be a nightmare for other languages. 

Therefore, it is important for designers, or the DTP persons who create the original layout, to be aware and considerate of a few simple guidelines and rules when designing documents intended for translation.

  • Keep the design as light as possible.  High quality photos and images add a great deal of visual interest to a design.  But a heavy load of images in one document can present challenges in the foreign language typesetting process.  Images that are hundreds of MB in size take time to transfer. Keep in mind that Internet bandwidth could be significantly lower in some countries, and you don't want your foreign language typesetter to spend hours to download only one picture.

  • Leave plenty of white space. Non-English languages can, on average, take up 30% more space than English. If enough space has not been allotted, the foreign typesetter will be forced to reduce the font size, or change character and line spacing. Also, new pages may even need to be added. As the text will be longer and flow differently, it's possible that some images will also have to be repositioned and the entire document will look a little bit different.

  • Use style sheets. Not only will this make your work easier and more consistent, it will also help the foreign typesetter.

  • Try to use fonts that support foreign characters. Some of the fancy font families do not have even the most common French or Spanish accents, let alone East European languages, or others.

  • Finalize your design before sending the files for translation and typesetting. For languages like Arabic, Chinese, Korean, and many others, the foreign typesetter will most likely use a localized version of your software. You'll not be able to open the returned files to insert changes.

  • Provide all the source files and fonts used for creating the document. If you used layers with text and images to create art effects, make sure that the foreign typesetter receives all necessary source files, and not only the ones exported after merging the layers. Provide all the graphs and charts in an Illustrator format.

  • Don't forget about cross-platform conversion issues. Use OpenType fonts as much as possible. Most PC fonts do not match Mac fonts. For some languages, it will be easier to find a typesetter who is using a PC to do their work. Also, nearly all of the translators will be using PC fonts, and the fonts they use may not be available in certain combinations of applications and platforms.

  • If you decide to do the typesetting on your own, try to arrange a proofreader to check on punctuation, line breaking, and to verify that the text is placed in its proper places, etc.

  • Use a minimum number of columns. In some languages such as German, words may be twice as long as English.  If the columns are too narrow, you may end up with lines that only have one word or many hyphens.  Documents formatted that way just aren't as professional looking as they may otherwise be.

  • Pictures with callouts may look great in English, but they often need to be readjusted after translation text expansion.  Leave enough space for expansion, or use key letters with a legend.

  • If your computer is set up to use special colour profiles-collect them along with your pictures and fonts. Save your source files to a lower version; it's possible that the foreign typesetter does not have the same version software.

  • If you use special techniques, make sure that the foreign typesetter has the necessary tools and knowledge to manage the project without losing the quality or the message.

  • Pay attention to cultural issues. If your document is to be translated into a language spoken in an equatorial or tropical country, try not to use pictures with Eskimos. This will work only in the case that your document is actually about Eskimos. Be careful when choosing colours. In some traditional cultures, the meaning associated with colours is very important. Red is the colour of love and Christmas in Western culture, but it's also the colour of Communism in East European countries, and the colour of mourning in South Africa. Green is the traditional colour of Islam, but in Western culture, it is the colour for money and ecology.