Visualizing Culture

Analyzing the Cultural Aesthetics of the Web

by Roxanne M. O'Connell (Author)
©2015 Textbook XIV, 198 Pages
Series: Visual Communication, Volume 4


In an increasingly global society, the ability to identify a culture’s visual aesthetics helps us localize messages for better understanding and resonance with targeted audiences. But how do we identify the visual cues that specific cultures respond to? Based on Web design «best practices» and data collected from close to 2000 websites in more than 30 countries over a period of eight years, this book defines a methodology for identifying patterns – a «pattern language» – by which one can analyze the cultural aesthetics of a website to: (1) learn more about the visual communication patterns of a particular culture, (2) apply what is learned to the creation of new Web communication, and (3) identify trends in visual communication on the Web as influenced by emerging technologies.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Foreword
  • Notes
  • Acknowledgments
  • PART I: Thinking about Patterns
  • Chapter 1 Introduction
  • Current Literature
  • Using this Book
  • Summary
  • Chapter 2 A Pattern Language: Culture, Technology & Design
  • Culture
  • Cultural anthropology patterns
  • Technology
  • Technology patterns
  • Design
  • Design patterns
  • Bringing It Together
  • Summary
  • Notes
  • Chapter 3 Getting Started: Two Methods
  • Projects Starting with the Target User(s)
  • Projects Starting with the Website(s)
  • Collecting the Data
  • Seeing and Validating the Patterns
  • Using a Cultural Grid
  • Summary
  • Cultural Aesthetic Hunt
  • Chapter 4 Color Palettes
  • A Color Primer
  • Color and Culture
  • Evaluating the Color Palette
  • Summary
  • Notes
  • A Color Mood Board
  • Home Page Montage
  • Chapter 5 Content: Modality, Ratio, Density & Flow
  • Using a ‘Thirds’ Grid
  • Modality
  • Visual/Verbal Ratios
  • Content Density
  • Function
  • Decoration
  • Navigation
  • Information
  • Other Content Clues
  • Summary
  • Working with a ‘Thirds’ Grid
  • Chapter 6 Time: Mode & Tempo
  • Time Mode
  • Time Tempo
  • Time Mode and Tempo on the Web
  • Summary
  • Notes
  • Time Quadrants and Maps
  • Chapter 7 Audience Interaction & Information Density
  • Audience Interaction
  • Information Density
  • Summary
  • Affordance Testing
  • Chapter 8 Cultural Attitudes & Values
  • Cultural Context: High or Low
  • Attitude: Collectivist or Individualist
  • Affect: Rational or Emotional
  • Orientation: Objective or Relational
  • Lifestyle: Materialist or Quality of Life
  • Summary
  • A Day in the Life of My Cultural Twin
  • Chapter 9 Usability, Uncertainty & Ambiguity
  • Usability
  • Uncertainty
  • Measuring Usability
  • Navigation
  • Interactive Processes
  • Information Patterns
  • Summary
  • Basic Funnel Flowchart
  • Regional culture: Denmark – “Scandinavian Design”
  • Diasporal culture: Argentina – “Pictures and People”
  • Multinational templates: Starbucks & Coca-Cola – Localizing “Web Flavors”
  • Functional templates: News websites – “Print goes online”
  • Chapter 10 Using the Pattern Language
  • Pattern Language and Tools
  • Applications of this Knowledge
  • Using the Patterns and the Grid
  • Example 1: Denmark—Scandinavian Design
  • Analysis
  • Example 2: Argentina—Pictures and People
  • Analysis
  • Example 3: Starbucks & Coca-Cola—Localizing “Web Flavors”
  • Analysis
  • Example 4: News Websites—“Print goes online”
  • Analysis
  • Afterword Moving Forward
  • The Not-so-final Word
  • Glossary of Pattern Language Terms
  • References
  • Index
  • Series Index

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The word “selfie”1 was chosen to be the word of the year in 2013 by The Oxford English Dictionary. The word choice by the venerable OED draws our attention to how highly visual and mediated our world has become. Self-portraits have always been around. What is different is the ease and speed with which our lives can be visualized and communicated across time and space. The minutia of our everyday lives is now the stuff of an endless stream of tweets, posts, pins, grams, and vines. This over-pouring (and sometimes overpowering) digital documentation of our inner and outer cultural worlds into the vortex of social media is subject to culturally situated aesthetics codes, and rules. In other words, visual snapshots such as the “selfie” are not just individually generated messages but are inevitably culturally coded. This visualization of our culture raises several questions. How does culture mediate visual, digital design and practices? What does it mean to talk about a globalized, visual culture? How are our social subjectivities and cultural politics connected to our visual production and consumption? How do we interpret web visualities and imagery through cultural, cross-cultural and intercultural lenses?

Roxanne O’Connell’s book, Visualizing Culture: Analyzing the Cultural Aesthetics of the Web, is a bold and concerted attempt to answer these questions.

It helps us understand the various ways in which technology is being used as visual platforms for information and design. It prompts us to think carefully about cultural universality and cultural relativity in relation to web design and visual media. It encourages us to appreciate the complex imbrications between visual aesthetics, cultural values, and global optics. But perhaps most importantly, Visualizing Culture: Analyzing the Cultural Aesthetics of the Web, alerts us to the fact that there has been a paradigm shift in the way we represent ourselves, engage the other, and communicate with the world. As well-known scholar Stuart Hall remarked, “history is constantly breaking in unpredictable ways,” yet we believe that we “somehow go on being the same” (1997, p. 43). We have long privileged logocentricity and the primacy of the linguistic text. Consequently, much of how we understand and analyze visual imagery and visual web-based media stems from a linear, linguistic approach. In ← xi | xii → contrast, O’Connell’s work urges us to consider how visual aesthetics, technology, culture and globalization are profoundly interlinked.

Both scholarly and trade writing on visual communication have predictably proliferated in the last few years. The scholarly work is typically heavily tilted towards the theoretical whereas the trade writing too often offers short-hand, cookie-cutter tips on visual communication. Visualizing Culture: Analyzing the Cultural Aesthetics of the Web, stands as a unique and much-needed addition to the growing literature on visual communication. O’Connell uses her extensive experience and expertise that has spanned the roles of manager/entrepreneur, usability engineer, researcher/author and educator to produce a book that is both practical and grounded in communication theory. The impetus behind this book is to provide well-developed and conceptually supported tools to examine and decode how visual aesthetics are mediated by cultural contexts. The idea of “seeing” as deeply cultural yet morphing through the vectors of a more universalized global economy is at the heart of Visualizing Cultures. O’Connell provides very specific and usable ways in which educators, scholars, and professionals of visual communication can traverse the cultural fields of this web visuality. Whether trying to develop pedagogical modules, research instruments, or practical solutions, this book offers systematic, lucid, and informed resources.

As a scholar who studies global media and identity, I am particularly intrigued by the way O’Connell knits the utilitarian with the theoretical. She states at the outset that Visualizing Culture is not about theory. I beg to differ. While this book may not wade through the thick and sometime impenetrable marsh of cultural and critical theory, it does frequently foray into some very meaningful conceptual conversations related to globalization and cultural identity. However, true to its purpose, the book does not linger long on untangling theoretical conundrums and swiftly moves on to elaborating its goal of helping us understand how cultures might potentially express themselves visually through the media. By giving the more practical focus of the book more heft Visualizing Culture promises to be an important touchstone work that engages a wide audience. As a reader, I know that I am now better armed to unpack the various cultural ramifications, iterations, and implications of the “selfie.”

Anjali Ram
Barrington, Rhode Island


1 A self-portrait taken with one’s smartphone or digital hand-held camera and usually posted on a social media site.

| xiii →


Everything comes from somewhere. When one begins to teach something, one goes first to what one has been taught. In addition to the writers and researchers mentioned in this work, I wish to thank my former teacher, colleague and friend, Bill Gribbons, whose globalization course got me thinking along these lines. I also want to thank the students of COMM 380: Visual Media in a Cultural Context. Their struggle to understand cultural filters and aesthetics was what pulled me to investigate better ways to explore and explain what we were seeing. They were, and continue to be, my research assistants, my interlocutors, and my motivation for writing this book.

I also wish to thank my long-time media ecology mentor, Susan Barnes, for inviting me to write this book. She does what a good editor must do if the work is to be valued: she probed and questioned, drove for clarity, argued for the reader, and, all the while, did this with efficiency and grace, helping me rethink the trouble spots and refine what might have been fuzzy.

I would like to express my appreciation to my colleagues on the Foundation for the Promotion of Scholarship and Teaching at Roger Williams University for providing the support needed for writing and publishing. A very special thanks goes to Kamille Gentles-Peart and Anjali Ram in our Global Communication program. They consistently provide the kind of nurturing environment that makes this kind of scholarship possible. Steeped in communication theory and practice, they are my guides and my dear, dear friends.

Finally, I want to thank my life-partner, soulmate and copy editor extraordinaire, Robbie O’Connell. He is my first reader and listener and the one who keeps me from losing my way within my own prose. If he can’t follow what I’m saying, then I need to rewrite it and express it more clearly, cleanly, and succinctly. He keeps me on the path.

Roxanne O’Connell
Bristol, Rhode Island, 2014

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PART I: Thinking about Patterns

Visualizing Culture is a way finding work. It is intended to help us recognize where we are on the Web based on visual cues that indicate the cultural aesthetic of that website and its author(s). We derive two benefits from knowing ‘where we are.’ First, we will see and listen differently when we are more finely tuned to the material before us. Second, in crafting our own messages for people situated in a particular cultural context, we will be better able to ‘speak’ to their ‘listening.’ As such, it falls into the category of a ‘how to’ book. It is not intended to impart deep theoretical and philosophical knowledge, although some of that is in here, but rather to provide practical methods for researching and analyzing what we see— and what might be at work underlying what we see—when we look at a webpage.


XIV, 198
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2013 (June)
Globalisation Audience Internet Cultural difference Visual pattern global society trends visual cues
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 198 pp., num. ill.

Biographical notes

Roxanne M. O'Connell (Author)

Roxanne O’Connell (PhD, Salve Regina University) is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication and Graphic Design at Roger Williams University. She is the editor of the two-volume series Teaching with Multimedia and a contributing author to Visualizing the Web: Evaluating Online Design from a Visual Communication Perspective.


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216 pages