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Designing for Belonging: Why Image Localization Matters

February 2020


Article credits
Nora Ahlenius

A closer look at the ways in which we try to ensure that Spotify looks just right, no matter where it appears.

Every day, millions of people around the globe open Spotify, looking for something that fits just them: who they are, where they are, and how they see their world. That's why we localize our content — so people can easily find Bollywood in India, Sertanejo in Brazil, and Malay Pop in Malaysia. Playlists may share a theme but feature different songs in different parts of the world, so Taiwan’s Happy Hits are not the same as those in the United States. And every word on Spotify is translated into the local language(s) whenever possible.

What may be surprising is that we also spend a lot of time localizing images, so that people can better relate to the photographs, illustrations, and visual treatments they encounter on Spotify. In this post, we’ll take a closer look at the ways in which we try to ensure that Spotify looks just right, no matter where it appears. We’ll explore the emotional content of images, our approach to cultural sensitivities, and how we handle image localization challenges that are beyond our expertise. Through these efforts, we strive to help people feel not just included, but like they can actually see themselves in their Spotify experience. By localizing images, we can help people feel that they belong.

Differences make the difference

Music unites people all over the world. There's beauty in not being able to speak the same language as someone else, yet still like the same music. And yet listening is often a highly localized and personal experience. How we listen — and what we listen to — varies all over the world, from country to country, culture to culture, and person to person. Therefore, what people see when they open Spotify must vary in equal measure. 

When I joined Spotify over four years ago, it had never occurred to me that the experience of listening to music in Sweden might be vastly different from listening in India, Singapore, Mexico, or South Africa. But when I started working on the editorial design team here, I got the chance to collaborate with music editors all over the world. It was exciting as well as challenging, because I realized that my reference points in many cases were so different from theirs. 

Partnering with our editors made me aware of how much my culture and upbringing influenced many of my design choices to that point. I realized I’d have to work harder through research and empathic thinking if I was going to represent cultures that were not my own.   

These differences in perspective can make it perilously easy for design decisions to go wrong. Image localization is typically something people notice only when it fails, but when done well, it feels seamless and natural. So for every image localization challenge, we take several steps to minimize the risks and maximize our chances of achieving the desired effect.

Translation is just the beginning

How do you make a global product feel inclusive and relevant for people all over the world? The only reasonable answer I can think of is: You don’t. One size never fits all, and that’s okay. 

A product might scale in its functions and features, but some things lose their value when you serve the same experience for everyone. The first thing we do to make Spotify more relevant to more people is to translate the experience into the appropriate language whenever we can. 

Take this example below, for a playlist called “Songs to sing in the shower.”

In this case, we’re able to use the same image for a group of countries: Germany, Poland, Israel, and Italy. We can translate the playlist title and evaluate whether the results meet our criteria for representation.

But when we’re working across a more diverse slate of countries and cultures, we must make more significant changes to the images as well as the language. See below for how we present a “Happy Hits” playlist in the United States, India, Taiwan and Turkey.

The layout, text treatment, and background are consistent, but we’ve changed every other element to ensure that each playlist cover belongs within the country and culture where it appears.

Creating connections

Coming back to that first scenario of people opening Spotify to find something that fits them: Imagine browsing for something that resonates with you, but all the images you see feature people who look completely different from you. The images are not relevant or inclusive, so you don’t feel a sense of belonging. In such a case, we've failed to create a connection. 

Representation matters. When you're evaluating choices, it's important to see people who look like you. Is that happy person on the upbeat playlist cover someone you can relate to? This might be the question that determines if the playlist is for you, and in the long run, if Spotify is for you.

Beyond visual representation, it’s also important for us to think deeply about the cultural content we spotlight. This is why we highlight traditional Thai music in Thailand, recognize South Africa's Freedom Day, and celebrate Diwali in India. 

Sensitive subjects

The images that visually communicate emotions are not the same worldwide. What some people perceive as social norms may not be viewed that way by people from other cultures. And so, in some cases, we must change our entire approach to a localized experience. 

When Spotify was about to launch in the Middle Eastern market, we came to understand that the visuals that many Western countries see as socially acceptable wouldn’t resonate in Middle Eastern countries. In the United States, our Pure Seduction playlist portrays a couple kissing in a pool; but for the Middle East, we had to find other ways of illustrating that general concept. To show respect for local norms and beliefs, we found that the idea of “love” might resonate better than “seduction,” and that it might be better communicated for this market with a photo of hands gently touching:

This is an approach we can use worldwide when necessary. Instead of not making content available, we can frame the content in a different way to help it fit in with the local culture.

Images without borders

Some things are easier to communicate on a global level. Love can’t always be illustrated with a kiss, but in some cases, it’s possible to find imagery that conveys a feeling without being tied to culture, ethnicity, or location. We can strive to find images that are, so to speak, borderless. 

Take a summer playlist for example: almost all countries have them, filled with the hits of the season. The cover needs to convey feelings like freshness and joy. Rather than showing, say, people on a beach, we can display an object — in this case, a citrus drink — that connotes freshness and joy without carrying strong cultural ties. Therefore, it can be used more globally.

With great power comes great responsibility

To have the chance to create experiences for millions of people is a designer's dream. But it comes with a huge responsibility. Because representation is so specific to the country and culture in which it is based, designers need to think outside themselves — often far outside — when creating experiences.

Each of us doesn’t have to shoulder this burden alone. We can rely on our fellow designers, and on colleagues who have backgrounds different to ours. We can do research. And we can look to local experts to guide us. When Spotify launched in India, we partnered with agencies who were embedded in the local market to help us ensure that our messages would resonate with listeners in India. It would have taken years for us to accumulate the right kind of knowledge. A more practical solution was to ask people who already have the knowledge. 

We go to great lengths to fulfil this responsibility because we want to create magic for you, no matter who you are, where you are, or what you want to hear. We take on this responsibility so you can see yourself in Spotify, and feel that you belong.

Thank you

I want to thank all the Spotify music editors around the world for their endless patience in explaining different cultures to me. If it wasn't for you, I wouldn't know how to celebrate Diwali, I wouldn’t have gotten deep into K-Pop fan culture, and I wouldn’t know how amazing Mariachi bands are.

I want to give a shout out to my amazing colleagues in Editorial Design, too. Together we've helped to highlight culture all around the world. Thank you for all your passion and hard work.


Nora Ahlenius

Design Manager

Nora designs with the Editorial Design team. She is a Stockholm based art director with a love for design systems as well as the details.

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