Designing Your E-Learning Course Graphics with Localization in Mind

Localization is the process of translating and adapting content for a specific culture. If you’re new to localization, you may be wondering what graphic design has to do with it. Doesn’t localization just mean translating the text? Not quite. Graphic design is one of the most complex—and most neglected—aspects of localization. Why? Because there aren’t any hard and fast rules about how to localize graphics.

When you’re creating the version of your course that will serve as a template for all the other languages (often referred to as a “master course”), it’s important to understand some of the graphic design challenges posed by localization so you can anticipate them. In this article we’ll take a look at some of the things to consider when you’re designing a course that will be localized.

Leave Room for Language Expansion

If you’re creating your master course in English, it’s important to take into account that equivalent text can be 20 to 50 percent longer in other languages. If you don’t consider language expansion when you’re designing your screen layouts, you may find that once your content is translated, you have overflowing text that doesn’t fit on the screen.

For example, if you start out with something like this:

Text-Heavy Layout with English Text

Once this text content is translated to French, you’ll likely end up with something like this:

Text-Heavy Layout with French Text

See how much more space the French text takes up? When you encounter overflowing text after translation, you have to manually adjust each individual screen. This could mean adjusting the text size, image size, or having to divide one screen into several screens to make it all fit. Depending on how much text overflows, this could end up taking you quite a while.

Instead, try leaving extra space around your textboxes and buttons, so the text won’t overflow if it’s longer after translation. Take this design for example:

Layout with Extra Space and English Text

Notice how I’ve left extra space around the textboxes and how the text within the buttons doesn’t go all the way to the edge? Now take a look at it with the French translation:

Layout with Extra Space and French Text

Even with the longer text, this slide still looks nice. Leaving extra space will not only make it easier to localize your courses, but it will make your master courses look nicer too. Nobody likes a text-heavy design!

Avoid Embedding Text in Images

When text is embedded in an image, it means that the image and the text cannot be separated because the text has been saved within the image. Here’s an example of an image with embedded text:

Image with Embedded Text

See how when I select it, the image and the text are just one object? I can’t edit the text, therefore I can’t translate it.

Many authoring tools, like Storyline 360, offer an “export for translation” feature, which makes localization a lot easier. However, if your text is embedded in an image, your authoring tool won’t recognize it’s there and it won’t get sent off for translation.

But with some photo-editing magic, I was able to erase that text and then add it back in directly in the authoring tool:

Image without Embedded Text

See how the image and textbox are now two separate objects? I didn’t have the exact same font on hand, but this new font offers a similar look-and-feel and now it’s much easier to localize.

If you don’t know how to use photo-editing software, you could also crop out the part of the image with the embedded text and add the text outside of the image, like this:

Image without Embedded Text Alternate Version

Use Unicode Fonts

Not all fonts support special characters. For this reason, it’s important to choose a unicode font, or a font that supports a wide range of characters, when you’re designing a course that will be localized. If you choose a font that doesn’t support an accent or character used in one of your localized languages, that character will be replaced by the same character in another font or by another character or symbol.

When one of the characters is not the same font as the rest, it looks unprofessional. For example, look at the “è” character in this text:

Special Character Replaced with Another Font

Even if it weren’t red, it would still look out of place. It’s larger than the rest of the letters and doesn’t have the same handwritten style.

Sometimes the font even replaces the special character with another unrelated character, like in the example below, where the German “ß” was replaced with the letters “fs”:

Special Character Replaced with Other Characters

In this case, instead of meaning “larger” the word no longer means anything. What makes this last example so dangerous is that it’s harder to spot. Unless you can read German, you’re not likely to notice this small difference.

Choosing a unicode font helps ensure you won’t have font issues later on. Most fonts available for online download list which languages they support, so be sure to check that information before deciding on a font.

Avoid Country-Specific Images, Icons, and Symbols

They say an image is worth a thousand words for a reason. Images, icons, and symbols are often rich in cultural undertones. Choosing a culturally inappropriate image could mean communicating the wrong message to your learners.

If you want your learners to be able to understand and relate to the illustrations in your course, it’s important that you try to look at them from your learners’ point of view as you’re selecting them. For example, if you’re thinking about choosing the image below to represent the stress of a morning commute, you may want to ask yourself, Is this photo of a yellow cab in New York going to speak to my learners in India? What does their morning commute look like?

Country-Specific Image

Instead of using this illustration of dollars to represent money:


You could use this pile of unidentified coins:

Unidentified Coins

And instead of using this Starbucks cup to represent coffee:

Starbucks Cup

You could use this regular coffee mug:

Coffee Mug

If you’re not very familiar with the target culture(s), enlist the help of someone who is. Ask them to have a look at your images and let you know if anything stands out as not being very “local,” or if there are any icons or symbols they don’t understand.

If you’re localizing your course into multiple languages, it’s best to choose “neutral” images as much as possible so you don’t have to customize your graphics for every language version. In certain cases it makes sense to adapt an image for each version. However, it’s also a lot more work, so keep that in mind as you’re choosing your illustrations.

Be Aware of Differences in Color Symbolism

In Western cultures, red is often used to mean “incorrect” or “forbidden,” but in China it’s a color most people associate with happiness and prosperity. The color green, which is often used to mean “correct” in the U.S., is associated with death in some South American cultures. It’s important to be aware of the meaning of these colors in the target cultures for your course so you don’t confuse or offend your learners.

If you’re designing a course that will be localized in a country where color meanings are significantly different than in your home country, try to find a couple of colors that are neutral in both countries and use those instead. You can also include written explanations next to answers that are correct and incorrect, for example, to avoid any possible confusion.

Choose Characters Carefully

Characters are often used in e-learning scenarios to help learners understand how the information they’re learning applies to their daily work. For this reason, it’s important to choose characters your learners can relate to. This can be challenging, especially when your audience is made up of learners from all around the world. One way you can get around this challenge is by asking your learners to choose their own avatar in the beginning of your course.

Character Picker

Based on their choice, you could adapt all of the characters in your course. (If you’re using Storyline 360 to create your course, it’s super easy to do! Just check out this tutorial.)

Another option would be to use a diverse range of characters, so every learner is represented at some point during the course.

One more important thing to pay attention to when choosing characters for your course is their gestures. Certain gestures are completely innocuous in the U.S., while very offensive in other countries. For example, the thumbs up is often used to mean “good job” in the U.S., but in Greece, Italy, and the Middle East it’s highly offensive. The peace sign is another example of a gesture viewed positively in the U.S., but negatively in the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand. Make sure to research gestures in your target culture(s) before you include them in your course to avoid offending or confusing your learners.

Accept That Some Adaptations Might Be Necessary

It’s not always possible to adapt your master course so that no graphic design changes are necessary when you localize the course. For example, if you’re localizing into languages that read from right to left, you’ll need to rework your design so it looks like a mirror image. Or if you’re doing a tutorial, the screenshots will need to be redone in the localized interface. These are just a couple of examples that will need to be adapted on a language-by-language basis, but of course there are many more.

Finding it hard to come up with culture-neutral graphics? Don’t sweat it! It’s okay if not everything is 100 percent localization-friendly. The goal here is to make it as easy as possible to localize your course while ensuring your graphics are culturally relevant to all of your learners. To do this, you’ll likely need to work with regional experts to identify things that may need to be adapted.

When you come across things that will need to be updated for each language, make a note of them. That way, when it comes time to localize, you can make sure those things get updated.

If you keep these tips in mind as you’re designing your course, not only will the localization process go more smoothly, but your global learners will have an easier time relating to your content. And when your learner relates to your content, it’s more likely they’re going to get something out of your course. That’s a win for everyone involved!

Looking for more localization advice? Check out these other helpful articles:

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