Words aren’t the only things that can get lost in translation. Images and visual elements greatly impact how your brand message comes across in different countries, which is why multilingual graphic design is an essential part of global marketing.

Keep reading to learn about the importance and complexity of multilingual graphic design, with key examples from big-name brands and insights from one of VeraContent’s graphic designers.

See also: How to set up a design workflow for global social media accounts

What is multilingual graphic design?

Multilingual graphic design example from Ben & Jerry's Netherlands Instagram account
An example of designing an image incorporating two languages—English and Dutch—on Deliveroo’s Netherlands Instagram account.

Multilingual graphic design is the process of creating graphics in more than one language. This process involves translating any text overlaid on images and redesigning the layout to suit the copy in different languages—including adjusting font sizes, alignment and text placement.

In addition to reworking the translated text, multilingual graphic design also requires a great deal of localization. 

When creating graphics in multiple languages, you need to adapt each image to suit cultural preferences and make sure they’re both appropriate and relatable to each target audience, from choosing the right colors to the right visual references.

Mindfully adapting your marketing graphics ensures that your brand remains sensitive and appreciative of cultural nuances.

Download our worksheet for help with adapting your content strategy for local markets.

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Why is multilingual graphic design different from standard graphic design?

A Swedish Instagram post for food app, Foodora
A Swedish Instagram post for food app, Foodora, asking Swedish users to find five Valborg—a traditional spring festivity in Sweden—words in the picture to win 20% off their next purchase.

In short: Multilingual graphic designs cater to multiple languages and cultures, while standard graphic design purely focuses on one language and one audience. 

Multilingual graphic designers need to deal with varying text length, bilingual file names, font resolution and right-to-left formatting for languages like Arabic and Hebrew. Then there’s considering multilingual fonts (more on this later) and ensuring that all images used are relevant for each target audience. 

As you can see, it’s quite a bit more complicated than designing in just one language!

Without considering specific multilingual design concepts, the visual impact of your content can easily get lost or completely misinterpreted. 

See also: Marketing translation: Engaging audiences in their own language

Graphic design concepts for multilingual marketing

An example of a localized image on Vodafone’s Czech Facebook page.
An example of a localized image on Vodafone’s Czech Facebook page.

When designing graphics in multiple languages, here are a few things for designers to consider:

1. Leave a lot of open space

Text lengths vary in different languages, which can be challenging when it comes to laying out your design.

We’ve found this particularly tricky when creating the Turkish version of the content for one of our clients. When designing graphic templates, our designer Esaú Gozalo ensures that the designs would look good with either one or two lines of text. 

“Multilingual or not, a design should always breathe. And when designing for different languages, leaving enough room for text is even more important. The key is to leave a lot of space for the text and avoid cramming the design with many elements.”

Tip: Add an extra line of text the first time you design a template to prepare that template for different text lengths. Writers and translators should also try to keep the text on images as brief as possible.

See below examples of differing campaign logo designs used on Visa’s Spanish vs. UK Instagram accounts:

Catering to varying word lengths when adapting to different languages can also impact development on apps and websites. For example, the Deliveroo app has a 16-character limit for filter titles such as “Grocery” or “Chinese food,” which can make adaptation to different languages challenging. Here’s how they handle word count restrictions: 

“What we tend to do is ask the designers or the engineers: ‘What is it that you want to say?’ Not the actual transcript, but what is the core message? And we’ll find a completely different way of saying it that fits that character limit.” – Anne-Sophie Delafosse, localization manager at Deliveroo

2. Use regionally & culturally appropriate images

From the people represented in your designs to the references used, it’s important to use culturally appropriate and relevant images.

As Esaú puts it:

“If you’re using images, emojis or symbols in your design, you need to ask yourself if their meaning will hold in different cultures. When localizing content, it might make sense to completely change the media for one country from time to time, but normally you’ll want to choose imagery that caters to multiple cultures.”

Secondly, the images need to be regionally relevant so that your local audiences can relate to the content.

See below two examples of Uber using regionally appropriate images on Instagram posts: An image of a Tuk Tuk for their India account (left) and the Sydney Harbour Bridge for their Australia account (right).

3. Consider different color associations

While using culturally appropriate images may come as second nature to most graphic designers, adapting colors for different regions takes a bit more getting used to. It’s important to understand how color associations vary from culture to culture and within different possible audiences.

Color associations within North American culture can often mean something radically different to Japanese or Middle Eastern audiences, where color meanings are more specific and defined.

For example, in the US, orange is the color of autumn and harvest, and it signifies the start of fall through Halloween and Thanksgiving. However, in the Netherlands, it’s considered the national color and most commonly used to signify royalty. 

See below an example of an autumn-themed Instagram post on Starbucks’ US account:

An example of using cultural colors on graphic designs

4. Think about text direction & alignment

Alignment plays a major role in all types of graphic design, as it tightens your designs and helps them look clean and organized. But it also differs for certain languages. 

In Arabic, Hebrew and Persian, text is written from right to left. This might mean you need to reverse the entire layout of your image if it was initially designed for languages reading from left to right.

Tip: When creating templates that need to cater to both left- and right-aligned languages, try center-alignment as a middle ground alternative.

Here’s an example of an image used on Nescafe Egypt’s Instagram account using center-alignment on Arabic text.

An example of text alignment in multilingual graphic design

5. Get help when you need it

It’s so important for graphic designers to have close communication with the entire creative team—including writers, project managers and translators—to discuss challenges when they come up.

As Esaú points out:

There may be times where the text just doesn’t fit, and you’ll have to ask someone to find a shorter way to say the same thing. Or you may be working with a language where grammar works very differently, and you’ll need extra guidance to make sure the layout looks and reads right.”

It’s also useful to have processes that allow linguists to review the final design in their language and ensure it’s effectively localized. 

Quality assurance is so important in the multilingual graphic design process!

See also: Content localization: A how-to guide for global brands

Multilingual typography: Fonts designers need to know

An image of a laptop with a graphic featuring examples of different fonts

Certain languages have unique special characters—like the “å” in Swedish word “blåsa”, the “ž” in Croatian word “džentlmen” and the “œ” in French word “œuvre”—and not all typographies feature them. That’s why it’s important to choose a font family that supports all the languages you’ll be working with. 

As a first step, make a list of all the languages that the font family needs to support and make sure you choose a multilingual font family that fits those requirements

Picking a font is all about reaching a balance—as a designer, you’ll want to find a font that visually conveys the character and tone of the brand. But the more languages you need to cover, the fewer choices you’ll have.

According to Esaú: “The best chance to find the right font is to buy a typeface from a professional foundry as they tend to support more characters than free font makers.”

Pro tip: There’s an exceptionally good free multilingual font from Google called Noto, covering more than a hundred writing systems. 

Fun fact: While the name “Noto” means “I write, I mark, I note” in Latin, it’s also short for “no tofu” as the project aims to eliminate what is sometimes referred to as “tofu rectangles”—when symbols like this □□ are shown when no font is available for your text.

Hire a specialist multilingual graphic design agency

Multilingual graphic design doesn’t happen in a silo. Before you even get started on the design element, there have already been marketing strategists, copywriters and translators involved—not to mention a project manager to oversee the whole process. 

If you want your brand to continue sharing its message via images in multiple languages, it pays to hire a specialist in multilingual graphic design. At VeraContent, we regularly create localized visual content to complement our written work for clients and their audiences worldwide. Get in touch with us to find out more about our graphic design services.

See also: Choosing the right transcreation agency for your business