I’d like to begin with a disclaimer. My opinions on the following topic are merely that, opinions. Opinions formed by observations and interactions with the Chinese culture over a brief period of about two years during my time living in the Henan province in Central China.

I have no formal education or training on the subject of Eastern or Western cultures, sociology or cross-cultural communications whatsoever. Additionally, I will interchange the terms “Chinese” and “Eastern”. I recognize that my generalizations are merely that, generalizations. Japan, for instance, has been heavily influenced by the West (and vise versa), so many of our affinities, in design and otherwise, overlap.

How it all Started

Upon my arrival in China in the summer of 2005, it wasn’t long before I began to notice some of the intricacies of the cultural differences between the Chinese and the West. Sure there were obvious differences like language, physical appearance, governmental philosophy, etc. But what really began to emerge were subtle differences like sense of humor, interests and artistic preference.

I noticed that I simply could not find a Chinese website that was visually appealing to me. Out of curiosity, I began to ask around and put together a list of websites that Chinese natives frequented and thought were well designed / useful.

I’m guessing if I asked this question to the common web surfer in the West I’d get sites that weren’t well designed (cough-facebook-cough-amazon-cough). So the caveat here is that I may have received different feedback had I asked Chinese web designers. Either way, the answers I received back from the Chinese were sites like the following:

With the exception of baidu.com (who blatantly copied their design from Google) and renren.com (who clearly copied their design from Facebook), the common theme among most Chinese sites seemed to be ludicrous amounts of characters (e.g. text) with either a misuse of graphics or the complete omission of graphics altogether. I was baffled. How could this be acceptable? How are the Chinese able to consume all of this data, filter it, and decide what they want and don’t? Why do they even tolerate the fact that this is standard practice?

Moreover, it’s common for Chinese sites to have multiple, simultaneous animations, popups, overlays, sliders, etc… they regularly practice many of the fundamentally understood bad design principles that Western designers strive to avoid at all costs. I honestly felt like I was back to 1995 all over again.

My Reaction

Of course, being the pompous Westerner that I am, my initial reaction was “Oh, they are a developing nation and simply haven’t caught up to us yet.” Well, that could be the case. I suppose there is merit in the truth that design and artistic preference evolve over time and with prolonged exposure. An example of this could be that I personally wouldn’t hang a Renaissance style painting in my house today; though I most certainly would have during that era. As a culture, our preferences have evolved. Perhaps that is where China is currently positioned along the fabric of design evolution.

Another possibility, however (and my personal theory), is that nurture has trumped nature and Chinese web design preferences are being formed from upbringing and cultural influence rather than prolonged exposure and natural artistic evolution. Of course, artistic evolution is rooted in cultural upbringing, but my argument is that Chinese web design preference, while evolving and advancing, is not playing catch-up to Western web design. Rather, it is simply taking its own course, being guided primarily by Eastern culture and only mildly influenced by the West with basic IA concepts.

Why I Formed this Theory

I spent most of my time in China at the University where I taught. During that time I noticed that the general rule of thumb for Chinese students was to memorize information and really not be bothered with actually understanding it. They figured they had the rest of their life to spend thinking about and grasping the information they were learning in school and now wasn’t the time to actually analyze it. Quite different from our views on the University experience here in the West, huh?

I think this insight into how most Chinese learn might be a key component to how most Chinese read and interact with websites as well. As Westerners, we desire and expect enlightenment, an “ah-hah” moment, an understanding, even entertainment (whether that is the intent of the website or not). Easterners don’t operate that way. They acquire data first; they indulge in it later. The premise of my theory is that when Chinese are accessing a website, they are in data acquisition mode. It’s all about input from the site to the brain, and not nearly as much about interaction, reaction or understanding.

Another aspect of Chinese culture that became frustratingly obvious over time is that they are extremely indirect. Unlike Westerners, Chinese become very uncomfortable when people get right to the point. There is a sort of dance that occurs among Chinese during conversation. As a Westerner, this is extremely frustrating and confusing, but for Chinese this is simply the most acceptable method of communication. I don’t think it’s too much of a jump then to carry over this behavior to website interactions as well. A concise, to the point, call to action just simply is not what resonates with the Chinese culture.

Keeping it Real

Now, in the spirit of remaining the transparent realist that I am, here are a few bullet points outlining my feelings and understandings:

  • This does not mean that I now see the beauty of Chinese web design. For me, it still reeks of 1995 Western design. And 1995 design practices, while tolerable at that time, are now objectively bad and should not be revisited.
  • I do not believe that Chinese web design should or could catch up to the current trends we are seeing in the West.
  • I do not believe the artistic preference timeline is linear across time and cultures and that all cultures pass through the same points. China is on their evolutionary path and the West is on theirs.
  • We can and should appreciate that our cultures are different, but we do not and should not (currently at least) agree on best practices in web design.

Cross-cultural web design is extremely difficult if not impossible. Beyond language barriers, there exists an insurmountable artistic preference barrier. This is not a bad thing. Everyone is different. Every culture is different. Though I do believe in cross-cultural interactions and communications, there are some things that must remain accessible only within that culture. Web design is one of them.