The Dixie Chicks may have accidentally stumbled onto an important design principle when they wrote ‘Wide Open Spaces’ “a certain shade of green” – trust sparsity, avoid overwhelming audiences with information, and always be wary of your colour choices.
In 1982 academics John Balling and John Falk conducted a visual preference survey and put forward a notion called the ‘savanna preference’. The basic idea was that people tended to prefer environments with open areas, scattered trees, water, and uniform grassiness over other natural environments.
Balling and Falk noted that an overwhelming majority of those surveyed believed savanna-like landscapes were the most desirable in which to live as compared plain environments like deserts, or dense ones such as jungles, or complex environments like mountain ranges.
In terms of design, we can see evidence of this preference – just look at how parks, resorts, gardens, and golf courses often resemble savannas. Humans have historically found comfort and assurance in wide, green spaces.
According to popular theory, this preference is conditioned from our ancestors’ drive for survival while the aesthetic value comes from humans’ relationship with the colour green.
Colour plays a huge role in how people interpret information. Neo-Hindu spiritualist, Paul Brunton believed the colour green symbolises natural tranquillity. “Green, which is nature’s colour, is restful, soothing, cheerful, and health giving,” he said.
The colour green is why people ‘go back to nature’ when they’re looking to relax and why waiting rooms for television and concert performers are called ‘green rooms’.
The low wavelength colours like green also assists with concentration since it is easy on the eye and has a restorative effect on people’s mental state.
With this colour psychology in mind, presentation designers should take cues from the savanna preference and focus on creating slides that have small, scattered clusters of information (like trees) on wide, green spaces to ensure audience concentration and interest.
However, you should avoid combining a green background with text that is another shade of green, or yellow, or certain shades of purple. Combining green with the right shade of purple can create some intense designs, so please tread lightly.
To incorporate the ‘savanna preference’ into your next presentation, use the rule of thirds and place important information or objects at various intersection points to create a scattered effect – this should naturally lead your audience’s attention without straining their vision.
Also, don’t forget ‘horror vacui’, which is Latin for ‘fear of emptiness’. Ignore the impulse to fill empty space with unnecessary information – there is no shame in empty space. Minimalism helps audiences perceive premium value – so keep things sparse to help the message resonate and demonstrate the importance of what you’re trying to convey.
The ‘savanna preference’ is not just important to bear in mind when plugging away at a design; it’s also a good thing to remember whenever your design work is getting too much for you. If you ever feel overwhelmed or stressed, take a moment to look at nature – looking a vast green field just for a moment can help rejuvenate your eyes and mind during those long hours of screen staring.