Principles of Design #18 – Savanna Preference

Feels like home

Humans have an automatic preference for savanna-like environments, over other natural environments that are simple or complex.  Thus, we prefer open areas, scattered trees, water and uniform grassiness over deserts, jungle and mountains.  The preference is believed to date back to our early ancestors who lived in such environments with a survival advantage over their contemporaries who lived in other environments, leading to a genetic disposition to favour such landscapes.  This preference continues to manifest itself in the resemblance of many parks, resorts and golf courses to the savanna, our ancestral home in East Africa.

Such environments are preferred for their depth, openness, uniform grassy covering and scattered trees, which offer a very different environment to those with more obstructed views, high complexity and rougher textures.  The preference has been demonstrated across cultures and ages, although it is strongest in young children, and weakens as we get older,.  If you have ever watched The Teletubbies, you will understand the fascination of young children to the baby faced creatures on a lush savanna landscape!

Designing open spaces

Although there is some evidence that early humans lived in many different environments (such as woodlands), the preference is strong and consistent.  In comparisons of images of savannas, deciduous forests, coniferous forests, rain forests and desert environments, savannas are always preferred as a choice of place to live or visit.  This is likely linked to resource richness as well as perceived safety, as deserts consistently perform least well as an environment.

So whatever the culture, we all have a general preference for savanna and park-like landscapes, which can be exploited in the design of environments, advertising and anything which involves images of natural environments.  As the preference is strongest in young children, such settings are very relevant for children’s stories and play environments.


Principles of Design, Revised and Updated by William Lidwell, Kritina Holden and Jill Butler (2010)

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