Designing a Conversation Background

Science can help with electronic backdrops.

Posted Apr 09, 2020

As the COVID-19 pandemic has gripped our world, our in-person meetings have faded to the back of our memories and our electronic ones have become much more frequent.

All that increased time communicating with each other via Skype or Zoom or something else raises an important question: What should people see behind your head as you speak with them?

Planning your electronic conversation backdrop is in some respects like planning your office workspace, at a smaller scale. Both are similar because you know that you want to set a mood and send certain messages to whomever you’re speaking with about who you are as a professional as well as a person. In these particularly challenging times, you may be particularly interested in keeping the stress levels of the people you’re talking with in check.  

Since people are generally pretty stressed at the moment, colors that are not very saturated but relatively bright, such as a sage green with lots of white mixed into it, is a good option for a backdrop now. So is a smoky blue that’s very light. Viewing these colors relaxes us.

If the surface behind you will have some sort of pattern, it’s important to consider if that pattern will feature more curving lines or straighter ones—few patterns are made up of entirely curving lines or all straight ones, so we’re talking about relatively more curvy or rectilinear compositions here. Choosing a pattern that’s heavy on straight lines will bring thoughts of efficiency to viewers’ minds, while a pattern with relatively more curving lines will seem more comforting and help with calming viewers. A pattern with a couple of different colors and sorts of shapes that all seems fundamentally organized will help keep viewer tension in check, particularly compared to one with more colors and shapes that seems chaotic.

It is a good idea to add a green leafy plant to your backdrop, if at all possible. Seeing green leafy plants helps boost mood and supports higher levels of cognitive performance and creativity—all of which can be handy during often-too-long electronic meetings.  

It’s best if your eyes are even with the height of the camera that’s beaming your image out into the world. Looking up into the camera will create the impression that you are less skilled/experienced, basically that you’re more childlike. Looking down into the camera will have the opposite effect, you’ll seem more capable and experienced from this perspective—which is, of course, good—but the effect can be so strong that it can thwart effective conversation among group members. Certainly, err on the side of looking slightly down into a camera instead of up into it if an eye-level view is not possible—and work on getting rid of any “double chin” effect with lighting or whatever other tools you can muster.

A dedicated “communication” space makes creating a backdrop a whole lot more feasible than talking from a different location during each call does. You may find that you want to develop two different “call zones” one for professional conversations and one for sessions with family and friends. On the family and friends backdrop, you may want to feature images that reinforce your bonds with each other, for example, such as family photos—professional backgrounds could similarly showcase company banners or something similar—but the ability of these backdrop images/banners/etc. to signal what is important to you, for instance, will be determined by how well your camera can capture this information.

Applying some of the research we use to develop offices to create at-home electronic discussion zones can help us all feel just a little more comfortable during these topsy turvy times.