National identities on the web

As kids we identified far-off countries by flags. As teens we picked them out based on geographic shape and location.

But as adults, our identifying image for a country overseas could soon become its homepage. We already instinctively seek official websites for companies, organizations and individuals. Nations surely aren’t far behind.

So what are they showing us?

It’s quite a mixed bag, and the results are interesting enough that they were the basis of some really insightful research by one of my best professors this semester.

They’re also fodder for some much-deserved criticism by web designers. This immensely entertaining blog post got me thinking about the topic, as it lines up government websites from around the world and scrutinizes the flaws of each. There are some really puzzling examples. Why is it always fall in Cypress? Must people be blurry in Greece? Do the French really think red and purple make a good color scheme?

But there’s more to analyze here than just aesthetic design. Approach the sites from a public relations standpoint, and you can see how different nations have very different goals for their web portals. Nations like Poland, Denmark, Israel, and Singapore have appealing sites that seem aimed at attracting new visitors and outside investment.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have sites where informing native residents appears the primary goal. This can be done with style like in Belgium and Australia or with visual clutter like in Mexico or Cameroon. You could even be like the United Kingdom and come up with a color scheme and design that has no visual connection to your actual country.

There’s also something to be said for simplicity. It’s easy to criticize nations like Ireland, Thailand and South Africa for their bare-bones design. But keep in mind that these nations have large rural populations. A simple site may be uninteresting, but at least it properly loads on old browsers or dial-up connections. Argentina even found a way to make simple look stylish.

What’s most important is that the site have a public relations purpose, whether that’s attracting outside attention or informing the taxpayers. Effective design only comes about when the nation is clear on this goal.

Otherwise you can turn up some pretty ghastly results even in relatively wealthy countries. For all their oil money, the governments of Saudi Arabia and Russia still can’t seem to buy a website that doesn’t make them look like third-world nations in cyberspace.

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    • andersj
    • November 22nd, 2009

    I enjoyed this. Great comments and links. Extends knowledge. šŸ˜‰

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