Let’s do a quick experiment. Close your eyes for a moment and imagine the most idyllic place you can think of. Look around and take note of your surroundings. What did you see? Chances are you imagined a landscape, a wide-open space, generally uncluttered but with signs of life here and there—some trees, maybe a lake, a few animals, perhaps even some rolling hills or mountains in the distance. Did you go tropical instead? If so, you still had your landscape in the vastness of the horizon at the ocean’s outer edge, palm trees, a river or creek, and of course birds, crabs, and other signs of beach life. Either way, the landscape was largely simple and uncluttered, not the typical everyday environment for most of us.
This wide open landscape is known as the Savanna Preference or Savanna Hypothesis, and it’s not surprising that it shows up in packaging designs. Many different studies have been conducted over the years, with subjects young and old, in countries around the world. In each, participants were shown photographs, paintings, or other representations of five different types of environments: a desert, a savanna, and three types of forests—a deciduous, a coniferous, and a rain forest. By and large, no matter their age or country of origin, the majority of participants preferred the savanna option over the others, even if they had never visited one or traveled outside of their native country or town.
Surprising? Probably not. It makes sense that adults would prefer a savanna-type environment. Consumers want to get away from everyday hecticness and just relax and not have to think about things quite so hard. So we should design packages that encourage their brains to sigh in contentment when they look at them. If looking at the package makes them smile in relief, then the enclosed product may be perceived as more appealing and have a higher probability of purchase. What you probably didn’t know is that the preference for savanna environments is inherently stronger in children.
It has been argued that we evolved into preferring savanna-like environments millions of years ago. Savannas provided the necessary elements for living: plant life, animals, water, and a means for creating shelter. But they also provided what was needed to survive against predators: unobstructed views (to see), concealed areas (to hide), and paths of retreat (to escape). Adults have learned that a savanna environment is not needed for survival, but children have not, so why not use that to your advantage when designing your next package?
Children are naturally drawn to and prefer savanna-type landscapes. Remember the Teletubbies? Personal opinions of the show aside, it was wildly popular with young children around the world. One of the reasons kids loved it was the savanna-type setting, with rolling, grass-covered hills stretching as far as the eye could see.
It’s not difficult to incorporate savanna-like environments into a design. Barni, a Russian graham cracker, for example, has their bear walking through a meadow. Simple, yet, for kids, it’s eye-catching. But what if the savanna was not just a backdrop for the design? What happens if your savanna is pulled into the foreground?
Arla (Denmark) has done just that for their line of flavored milk marketed in China: Each box tells a story. On the box of strawberry milk, a little girl is reading a story to a tiger. Reach for the organic milk, and you’ll see a little boy wandering through the foothills sharing his milk with a giant butterfly. The series continues with a little boy climbing a tree to chat with a giraffe, and a little girl dancing with a gorilla. What child wouldn’t want to drink that milk so they can have similar adventures? In each design, the savanna is not just a backdrop, it is the scene in which these adventures take place, taking what is already inherently attractive to children and using it to tell a story, which is also appealing to youngsters.
The preference for savanna-like surroundings is present in our everyday lives; you have only to look at a golf course, park, or playground to see one. But as adults, when we find ourselves longing for that type of uncluttered space, we are reverting to something we preferred when we were children. As package designers, we should take advantage of that. Yes, bright colors and busy designs do appeal to kids, but in the midst of all that busy-ness, why not capture a child’s eye by giving them what they are naturally drawn to: a rambling, open plain, filled with fuel for imagination.
Dr. R. Andrew Hurley is the founder of Package InSight and The Packaging School, and an Associate Professor at Clemson University. He can be reached at me@DrAndrewHurley.com