Graphic design agency challenges in Africa: Working with multiple languages

As a graphic design studio in Africa, our work is varied and interesting. One of our challenges is to cover the multitude of languages spoken on our continent. We are often asked to design documents in other languages, mainly French and Portuguese (but we’ve done work in Mandarin, Spanish, Arabic, Swahili, Afrikaans, Zulu, Setswana too!).

With approximately 3000 languages and 8000 dialects spoken across 55 countries, Africa is a truly diverse continent. Most Africans are bilingual or even multilingual, so when it comes to communicating, we’re a bit of a hodgepodge.

English is considered the ‘lingua franca*’ in most of Sub-Saharan Africa, but French and Portuguese have very strong influences too.

*A lingua franca is a language used to make communication between people who do not share a native language possible.


These are a few things to consider when graphic designing in a foreign language:

  1. A lot of languages expand longer than English, so sufficient space needs to be allocated (sometimes a slight re-design needs to be done).
  2. Make sure the font family you use carries all the accents needed. Getting the accents right is extremely important. Leaving out an accent could change the entire word and sometimes the sentence.
  3. Be aware of the cultural aspects of the language and of the region/country.
  4. Make sure that the images used reflect the culture you are appealing to.
  5.  Research and plan the colours used. Different colours mean different things to different cultures. Read more about this on our “Colours in Culture” article.
  6. Make sure the correct dialect is used (eg do not to use Brazilian Portuguese for Mozambique as they do not speak that dialect of Portuguese).
  7. Some languages require special symbols / characters (non-Latin alphabets). If these characters are not in a font family, a font family might need to be purchased to accommodate these characters.
  8. Final, approved translated text must be provided, it is extremely difficult to make changes in a language we are not familiar with
  9. Do not trust ANY online automated translator like Google Translate. We only recommend using a human translator native in the language required. They will know how to set the correct tone, use the language’s unique nuances and correct colloquialism to set it in the correct context.

Afrikaans is an African language – it is the only known Indo-European language that developed in Africa.

Knowing from the outset that the document will be translated into a foreign language helps immensely in the graphic design and allows us to make the necessary allocations right from the beginning – thus saving time and money. Once again, this will be taken into account when doing the English version so that the fonts do not have to be changed to accommodate the foreign language thereby keeping your documents looking as similar as possible.

English to German translations can require up to 50% more space!

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