Translation Paradox


In today’s digitized and ultra-connected world, the need to be understood everywhere, by everyone, in every language, has never been greater. But the quest for universal legibility has presented a troubling paradox: being universally understood without sacrificing a key element of what makes us who we are – our language.


The internet has made our societies and cultures increasingly borderless and accessible, making someone in London never more than a key stroke away from their peers in Tokyo or São Paulo.

But for millions of people accessing and creating digital content, communicating their dreams, desires, thoughts and intentions in their native tongue can at best result in glitches and misunderstandings, and at worst, demand a degree of linguistic homogenization that threatens some of the world’s rarest languages with extinction.

This report from The Future Laboratory and Monotype examines the key global trends driving the need for seamless design in any language, and identifies the innovative brands that are searching for solutions to the Translation Paradox.

The current world population of 7.3bn is expected to reach 11.2bn in 2100

Future Language Landscape

Over the past 30 years, the forces of accelerating globalization have thrown different cultures and nationalities together as never before, and nowhere more so than online.

Research by The Future Laboratory suggests that two major global trends have created a virtual Tower of Babel in which many new languages and alphabets are clamoring to be heard, and in which the need for a common legible font has never been greater.

Small-world Syndrome

Consider the sheer numbers. The current world population of 7.3 billion is expected to reach 8.5 billion by 2030, 9.7 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion in 2100, according to a new UN report.1

A growing proportion of this teeming multitude is on the move, online and in the real world, playing and working together in ways that would have been unimaginable even 10 years ago.

million people have at least one international connection on social media

Consequently, in nearly every borough in London today 100 languages are spoken, according to UK Census data. In the US, multicultural citizens are the fastest-growing demographic, with 120 million multicultural people now living there, according to Nielsen.2

Globally, the number of people living outside of the country in which they were born reached 244 million in 2015, according to the UN.3

This worldwide intermingling of cultures and languages is even more pronounced in cyberspace. Cross-border data flows have grown by a factor of 45 over the past decade, and they are projected to increase another ninefold by 2020, according to researchers at Harvard Business Review.

million people take part in cross-border

As a result, 914 million people have at least one international connection on social media, and 360m take part in cross-border e-commerce, according to McKinsey Global Institute, cited in the same research.4

‘With major advances in technology, travel and open markets over the past 20 years, we are seeing the emergence of a more mobile global citizenry,’ says Yvonne McNulty, founder of think tank Expat Research.

‘As people have more experience living and traveling abroad, they are more at ease living in new cultural environments for personal and economic reasons, and expect to be able to communicate with greater ease.’

Borderless Brands

Faced with a global mélange of cultures and linguistic traditions, designers and creatives are experimenting with a variety of visual cues to enable brands – which are increasingly global and transnational – to communicate clearly with a hugely disparate consumer audience.

in nearly every borough in London today
languages are spoken

Small World Restaurant

The Small World Restaurant by Google Translate and production company "m ss ng p eces" offered one approach to promoting the concept of universal understanding among such a multicultural global population.

Visitors could use Google Translate on their phones to decipher the menu via its Word Lens function, which translates any word the camera is pointed at into the user’s chosen language.

Depending on the nationality of the waiter, visitors were also required to use the app’s voice translate function to place their order. Staff conversed with guests in French, Norwegian, Korean, Indonesian, Portuguese, Spanish and Hebrew.

"M ss ng p eces" designed the environmental visual elements of the project to provide visitors with further opportunities to explore different languages and their cultures using the Google Translate app.

The façade of the restaurant was covered in phrases and words in a variety of languages, resulting in an informal, graffiti-like aesthetic. Internally, the agency created a series of graphic-led posters with slogans that were equally multilingual, designed to be deciphered using the Word Lens feature of Google Translate.

Narita International Airport Terminal 3

Narita International Airport’s Terminal 3 adopted a different strategy, with Japanese creative agency PARTY opting to dispense with written language altogether in a revamp focused on Tokyo’s hosting of the 2020 Olympics.

The new terminal is inspired by indoor running tracks and features a color-coded circuit and simple graphics that enable visitors to navigate the building without any language barriers.

A reliance on digital translation technologies or the use of graphics-only communication palettes are legitimate reactions to the demand for universal comprehension.

But both point towards one of the underlying challenges presented by what economist, global strategist, speaker and author Pankaj Ghemawat calls ‘World 3.0’ – the battle to stop the next wave of globalization from becoming a force for grey cultural homogeny.

‘We need to avoid solutions that smooth out the unique aspects of a culture or language. The barriers to different countries as well as the barriers between them are important,’ says Ghemawat. ‘Respecting and conserving different cultural mores holds huge profit potential for brands.’

‘Respecting and conserving different cultural mores holds huge profit potential for brands.’

Whole System Alphabets

Riding the shockwaves of globalization, represented by major trends such as Small-world Syndrome and Borderless Brands, designers are seeking what is essentially an online Rosetta Stone, a font that holds the key to universal translation while avoiding the trap of linguistic dumbing down.

A raft of exciting and intriguing projects have been wrestling with this thorny issue. In bilingual Dubai, Mobius Studio’s Behaving Kinetic Typography featured letters from the Arabic and English alphabets designed to share the same meaning through specific gestures enforced on both letter forms.

To achieve a transformative, fluid aesthetic, Mobius Studio examined how different materials reacted to different stimuli such as heat and water.

At Dutch Design Week 2015, autistic designer Jaap Knevel’s Hello World exhibition presented a unique set of characters that captured the meaning of words, with the ambitious goal of eventually creating a universal writing system.

Knevel asked people from different cultures to draw their interpretation of various words and turned the images into a typographic series using self-developed software.

Meanwhile, a new selection of devices, apps and design-led learning tools to aid linguistic fluency and understanding are emerging, ranging from Google’s new Translate app for Android and iOS, to Chineasy, a set of memory cards combining Chinese characters with a visual representation of the meaning of words.

But perhaps the most promising solution offered to date is the new Noto Sans font, produced by font specialist Monotype alongside its counterparts at Google, after a quest that illustrates the scale of the task at hand.

The team took on the gargantuan challenge of creating a single font that caters for over 100 writing systems used by more than 800 languages, each with their own cultural significance, inflections, subtleties and accents.

At present, users typing in a lesser-known language might see small blank boxes – known as tofu – appear on their screens to indicate a missing character.

Fire by Chineasy
Fire character, by Chineasy

This is having worrying consequences. A growing body of evidence suggests that speakers of rare and obscure tongues are switching to more widely written dialects to aid online communication, raising the very real fear that their own traditions might die out in the decades ahead.

‘This is something that we knew we had to do something about,’ says Mansour of Monotype. ‘Our [ultimate] aim is to serve that human community that would otherwise be deprived of the ability to have a digital heritage.’

It proved to be a mammoth task, involving the recruitment of linguistic specialists and speakers of some of the world’s least spoken or written languages to ensure the team’s designs were legible, natural and true to their origins.

In some cases, research trips to remote communities, such as a Tibetan monastery in Japan, were needed to locate offline speakers of lesser-known languages. ‘It was quite an international endeavor,’ says Bob Jung, head of the Internationalization team at Google.

In the end, a shared sense of mission enabled the team to develop Noto Sans – Noto is short for No Tofu – a font designed to create one file for all writing systems in the Unicode standard.

Languages that were facing the threat of digital oblivion because they are written by relatively few people, or originate from cultures with low technological penetration, have been thrown a linguistic lifeline for the future.

‘I feel like looking into the future of digital communications,’ says Steve Matteson, creative type director at Monotype. ‘Google Noto is going to be the go-to design for people communicating across multiple cultures and societies. It is helping to preserve cultures and it is also helping to break down cultural barriers.’

Monotype’s Mansour adds: ‘In one way or another, I’d like people to be able to perpetuate their traditions, whether they do it by hand or digitally. At this moment, everybody can do it by hand, but we want to make sure that the next generation will have access to the digital tools that everybody has.’


Our mother tongue is a key part of our identity, linking us to our loved ones and peers, and making us feel a part of the culture and country into which we are born.

Our networked world, an enabler of amazing new global relationships and professional and personal possibilities in so many ways, poses an often-unrecognized danger to the future of languages and written traditions that give hundreds of millions of people a clear sense of their place in their society and their world.

Over the next decade, designers will be at the forefront of the battle to find ever more sophisticated and elegant solutions to the Translation Paradox to ensure that the emergence of new technologies such as virtual and augmented reality enable us all to talk and be understood without the need to sacrifice a key element of what makes us who we are – our language.


  1. World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision - UN
  2. UK Census 2011 ONS, and The Multicultural Edge: Rising Super Consumers - Nielsen
  3. Trends in International Migrant Stock: The 2015 Revision - UN
  4. Article - Globalization Is Becoming More About Data and Less About Stuff - Harvard Business Review