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Why is Eastern Asian web design so busy?

In 2014, I spent some time in Japan. The country is remarkably efficient, from transportation services right down to their second hand books. However, from a Westerner’s perspective, one area that is lacking this level of efficiency is their digital web products which look like they’ve been in a time lock since 1999. This trend is not exclusive to Japan though. Other Eastern Asian countries including Taiwan, China, and South Korea, all have website designs that are reminiscent of GeoCities.

rakuten.co.jp, a popular Japanese website (Screenshot from 9 Feb 2016)
http://www.rakuten.co.jp (Screenshot from 9 Feb 2016)

Now, I know what you’re thinking. To a Western audience, we see:

  • busy text-heavy navigation
  • too many columns
  • contrasting colours
  • unresponsive for mobile.

There are some exceptions, but why does typical Japanese web design look frightening to Western audiences, yet is the standard for Eastern audiences?

Linguistics: The language is different

Logographic systems, like Kanji and Hanja, can contain a lot of information per character. It might look like clutter to us, but Eastern audiences can process this faster and more comfortably.

kanji

Logogram characters do not require punctuation or capital letters. This results in the language lacking visual emphasis. Visual familiarity is a cognitive linguistic process that we look for when rndeaig witretn txet.

Read the last three words of that previous sentence again. Did you successfully read them before realising they were spelled incorrectly? That wasn’t an accidental typo. That was Typoglycemia. Proof that we skim read our own language. We cannot skim read text as unfamiliar as logogram characters. That’s why it looks chaotic to us.

In general, the internet and most programming languages were originally designed by English speakers in both Europe and North America. As a result, most of the documentation and programming languages are in English. This does get translated, but it causes a delay in new web design trends being adopted.

Everything is a hyperlink

I’m not joking either. This Chinese site is a nightmare.

Why would someone make every character phrase on a webpage a link? Well, it comes down to searching websites and the language difference again. It’s not possible to type out logogram characters on a keyboard; they have to either be drawn on a tablet from scratch or literally typed out using Western letters for sounds.

Hyperlinks. Hyperlinks everywhere.
Hyperlinks. Hyperlinks everywhere.

China typically has very poor internet connection speeds. In the UK, over 28% of internet users have a connection speed of over 15Mb/s. However, in China, only 0.3% of users have that privilege. Adding all the links on one page allows the user to browse an entire site with ease in a world where internet connection is a pain.

Do you remember dial-up internet? I certainly sympathise with these users.

Cultural and technical differences

Photograph from my trip to Shibuya, Tokyo
Photograph from my trip to Shibuya, Tokyo

If you ever visit the Shibuya district in Tokyo, stop and have a look around at all the neon signs, noisy advertisements, and mass amounts of pedestrian traffic in the streets. You’ll notice that the same urban landscape has leaked over into the web. Physical space is valuable in Japan, none of it is wasted. The same goes for their attitude to web space. Japanese companies see the web as another physical space to fill with advertising. Rather than an interactive tool, the web is seen as a brochure that must be covered top to bottom in information.

From my experience, technologically speaking, Japan is quite outdated. Although the country is often regarded as a tech-giant, there are still many corporations that rely on cassette tapes, fax machines, and get this, you’ll still find people that use floppy disks. You will still find instances of Windows XP and IE 6 in regular use in Japan.

Before smartphones, Japanese mobile flip-phones made a huge cultural impact on the country’s web use. Tiny screens with content designed to be crammed in to fill all available space. This is still apparent in Japanese web design today.


Due to linguistic and cultural differences, I’m unsure whether the majority of Eastern Asian sites will adopt the Western “less-is-more” approach to web design. Although, it seems some western sites are inverting this and adopting Eastern web design methods.

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