Designing for Multilingual Applications

As the desire for companies to have their products and services be available internationally grows, the demand for multilingual support is increasing. There are several factors that must be considered when designing a multilingual application. Phasing in multilingual support may sound easy – just simply translate the language. However, it is unfortunately not that simple. Here’s why:

Search All Departments (English)
Rechercher Tous les Départements (French)
Suche Alle Kategorien (German)
搜索所有部门 (Chinese)

As you probably noticed in the example above, the length of words can vary based on the language. A general rule of thumb when designing for multilingual support is to design for the inevitable text expansion and contraction. Text may grow or shrink based on the language that is displayed on screen. For example, when translating from English to German or French, which are some of the most extreme examples of text expansion, designers should plan for text to expand in character length by about 30%-40%. On the other hand, when translating from English to Chinese, text length can be contracted up to almost 50% with the use of logographic characters.

Font sizes are also important to consider when designing for multilingual support. The font size of the application’s default language may not be fitting for other languages. Designers may need to increase the font size for certain languages so that the text is legible on screen. For example, font sizes that are suitable in English and French may be difficult to read in languages such as Chinese.

Due to the extreme diversity in text length, designers are required to create a flexible layout that can adapt to each language. Designers should avoid overloading a screen with content and strive to create a simple layout. However, even if designers keep the content minimal, sometimes different grid systems may need to be created for different languages. Additionally, even though most languages read from left-to-right, there are a few languages such as Arabic and Persian, which read from right-to-left. For these types of languages, a different page layout is often required.

A few other helpful best practices to keep in mind when designing an application with multilingual support include:

• Avoiding abbreviations

• Using iconography to convey messages when possible

• Using the native format of each supported language when designing the language selector. For example, instead of “German”, the text should say “Deutsch”.

• Using market-specific formatting in regards to how measurements, calendars, and times are displayed on screen. For example, in the United States and Mexico, Sundays mark the first day of the week; however, in most European countries, Mondays are the first day of the week.

To conclude, it is vital for designers to take into consideration the different variables regarding multilingual support. Before making essential design decisions, it is always best to determine any issues with multilingual support in the early stages of a project.


Written by Kathryn

Leave a Reply