A Call for “lntercultural” Instead of “Cross-Cultural” Design

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[Ed. note: We will be running articles every Wednesday submitted by the students at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Design. This is the second entry in this series.]

by Smitha Prasadh

It’s widely understood that good design requires empathy—how can you create an effective solution for a person or group without understanding their needs and desires, right? People are people, no matter where you go. But it gets more complicated when you’re trying to design for people or consider design issues in unfamiliar places.

The term cross-cultural design has become popular lately. Nobody designs in a vacuum, and we rarely design for people in the same life situation as ours. These days, it’s almost effortless to talk to and work with people all over the world. This is a fantastic development, and I think it’s really helped broaden people’s horizons. As a designer, though, it means we now have an extra set of responsibilities. The term “cross-cultural” implies that designers remain in their home culture and survey others from afar, designing from a distance. This isn’t enough.

I think it’s important to engage in intercultural design instead, in terms of how we think about problems and then act upon them. “Intercultural” implies more immersion and personal engagement. To fully understand an issue impacting people in another community, region, country, or culture, you need to see it from their eyes and understand not just their needs and desires, but why these needs and desires exist.

Recently, a friend of mine attended a talk about green initiatives in Asia that discussed eco-friendly bottled water (i.e., bottles using less plastic than normal ones). She was initially surprised that this was considered eco-friendly, since people would still be purchasing thousands of beverages in disposable bottles, instead of drinking tap water in refillable bottles (as advocated in the US). Others were similarly perplexed and asked the speaker about it—but she was puzzled by their skepticism because bottled drinks in eastern Asia are ubiquitous and virtually unquestioned.

Eco-friendly plastic bottle in Japan (courtesy of fastcompany.com)

Eco-friendly plastic bottle in Japan (courtesy of fastcompany.com)

There’s also been a lot of discussion about the Tata Nano, the 1-lakh (USD $2500) car released in India. Indians have divided reactions, but so do Westerners. The Nano’s design is revolutionary—it’s green, easy to manufacture, affordable and convenient, and fairly safe. Many Indians are proud that India was the first to achieve this, and eager for a safer alternative for family transport.

Others, though, are nervous about the strain this will put on the already burdened infrastructure. They see this as selfish grandstanding by Tata, without considering India’s current state of affairs. Additionally, Tata’s competitors introducing vehicles in this space could mean millions of new cars on Indian roads. This even impacts local culture if taxi drivers favor Nanos over rickshaws. Even if it’s as fuel-efficient as it claims, it would still contribute greatly to India’s greenhouse gas emissions, which has other political implications, like the Kyoto Protocol.

The Tato Nano (courtesy of dailynews365.com)

The Tato Nano (courtesy of dailynews365.com)

In this complicated case, it’s a car built by India for Indians (at least for now), but for Westerners to understand the full ramifications of the issue, they still need to research India’s current state of affairs and the public’s sentiments. This is why intercultural design is so important, and it applies to all design issues in cultures outside one’s own: designers should break through stereotypes and assumptions, and learn about the realities of life and culture, in order to truly empathize and design optimally.