Visual Hierarchy: Prioritizing the Elements of Design
Visual communication is a critical component of business materials. However, to effectively catch the eye of your target audience and lead them toward a certain action, such as clicking on a call-to-action (CTA) button, it’s important to provide a guide. This is where visual hierarchy comes in—controlling the user experience and telling consumers which elements to look at first.
To help your business make the most of visual hierarchy, this article covers:
What is visual hierarchy?
Visual hierarchy is the process of enhancing the user experience and guiding consumers through design element placement—essentially, it’s helping them process information. Without visual hierarchy, consumers might become overwhelmed, not fully processing what they’re seeing. Ultimately, this can equate to a lack of conversions.
With visual hierarchy, you’re telling users what’s most important and what they should pay particular attention to on the page, like a product or service.
Visual hierarchy key graphic elements
If your business is creating any marketing materials, here are 10 key elements your designer should consider to show order of importance when creating organized and visually attractive content.
Size is how large or small a figure appears in relation to surrounding figures and plays a big role in communication design. Larger text and images—in relation to other effects—help create a focal point and direct the human eye.
Size can also create perspective and add depth. For instance, if we place a large circle in proximity to a small circle, our eyes see the larger first and the smaller circle appears further away.
Color is what we see when light hits a surface and reflects on our eyes. Color used with purpose can signal visual clues and set a specific tone or mood. When used strategically, color can grab the viewer’s eye.
Understanding color theory can help create stunning visual materials. Bright colors can grab people’s attention, as can contrasting colors that sit opposite of one another on the color wheel, such as red and green, blue and orange, and yellow and purple. These color combinations can create a sense of action or excitement and stand out. Meanwhile, monochromatic hues (shades and tints of the same color) create a softer, balanced, and harmonious color palette.
The arrangement of a message is its typography. Typography, or the layout of text, is an important element and one you shouldn’t neglect. The structure of the text can strengthen a message and amplify the user experience.
A way to think about the arrangement is to think about how you see articles in newspapers, magazines, or on the web. Large, bold headings grab the attention of readers. This might be followed by smaller subheadings and body text, which is formatted in a way that meets the natural reading patterns of the user. You can learn more about reading and scanning patterns when we discuss visual processing patterns below.
When we place two or more visual elements within the same space, we have contrast. For instance, contrasting lines and colors create dynamic and eye-catching designs. You can also achieve contrast when pairing opposite elements, such as light and dark hues, large and small text or objects, or smooth and irregular objects. When used in a deliberate, clever way, contrast can create variety, intensify visual interest, and engage the viewer.
By definition, texture is how something feels; using texture in design supplies a sense of tactility and dimension to a 2D surface. Designers can imply a sense of texture through the use of art elements like color, lining, and shading.
Dimension adds an unexpected element to a flat surface and helps create a visually interesting image that people want to stay with longer. In the digital space, you can find texture in illustrations, patterns, and text.
Alignment delivers structure and organization into a composition and helps create a visual connection for viewers and refines readability.
You can find alignment on apps, dashboards, and website navigation bars. Designers align similar objects and avoid the use of distracting borders. This proximity to similar objects creates a natural line of demarcation.
Repetition provides predictability, pattern, and rhythm to a design project. In its most basic sense, repetition is the repeating pattern of a design element and can be found in website design, flyers, and other types of promotional materials.
The repetition of elements can enrich the user experience. For instance, a repeating pattern of horizontal lines can draw the user’s eye, add balance, and unify content. You can achieve repetition through repeated shapes or text.
How we process visual information is called the Gestalt Principles. The human brain organizes information in a way that makes sense and simplifies the vast amount of information it receives. Proximity to elements creates connected groups of objects.
Graphic and UX designers employ proximity to emphasize the relationship between objects placed close to one another. Text or objects further from a group are perceived as separate. Proximity can prove a valuable, effective visual hierarchy element that helps users efficiently organize information.
We can see proximity in use when filling out labeled forms. The proximity of the label and the form field creates a relationship that makes it easier for the user to fill out.
Also known as negative space, whitespace can structure the look of web design or another type of project. Whitespace serves as a critical communication tool that can supply several advantages for designers and users. For example, this element can help improve organization and the scannability of material. It helps guide the viewer’s eye and emphasizes particular areas of interest.
Understanding your target audience demographics can help determine the best style for your project. Consider age, income, and gender. Each demographic generally holds similar ideals of style.
Who is your ideal client and what are their values and preferences? Young and lively clients may enjoy bold, dynamic, and on-trend designs, while older professionals may prefer more natural, understated, and sophisticated designs. Research your ideal customer and discover what attracts their attention. From there, you can create a brand aesthetic that blends with their personal style.
Principles of visual hierarchy
By following certain design principles, such as repetitive pattern or texture, your business can grab the user’s attention and invoke a desired response, whether you’re creating a landing page, an app, or even a brochure. The following 10 principles can help enhance visual communication.
Patterns: Processing visual information
In design, a pattern is the repetition of a particular element, such as a line or color. Repeating design elements can add interest to a composition.
Besides creating a visually appealing composition, patterns can help guide and supply visual clues that aid in processing visual information efficiently. This can prove especially helpful when working with text patterns, as there are different types you can use to effectively communicate your message.
The F pattern layout is ideal for text-heavy designs, like blog posts or articles. It gets its name from the shape of the reader’s eye movement when scanning a page. Typically, the reader’s eyes are drawn to the headline. Next, they scan from top to bottom in search of attention-grabbing information. Then, the eyes scan from left to right. The horizontal and vertical eye movements create the shape of the letter F.
Readers enjoy F patterns because they allow for easy scannability. Take the BigCommerce example below. The reader is first drawn to the headline, which is read from left to right, and then they are naturally drawn to the subheader underneath and finally to the CTA button under that. This page is designed in a way that’s easy for the reader to complete the desired action, which is to get a product tour.
Z patterns flow from top to bottom and left to right—exactly how many people read and write. You can achieve a Z pattern design through a combination of text and images that lead the viewer’s eyes in the formation of the letter Z.
Unlike F patterns, though, Z patterns work best with light content projects, such as an advertisement or the homepage of a website. LinkedIn’s use of an F pattern, as seen below, provides critical information for the visitor at the top of the page. An imaginary diagonal line draws the reader’s eye and is followed by another horizontal line. From there, a second diagonal path leads the eye to the bottom of the page with the final words or CTA on the horizontal line.
Enhance visibility with sizing
The relationship between the size of objects within a space can enhance visibility. This relationship is called scale and, when manipulated, can create a dynamic design and a feeling of movement.
Sizing adds functionality and organization to a design. Typically, more important information is emphasized and designers make other information smaller. This contrast adds visual interest, creates better readability, and can amplify specific information.
The automaker Hyundai uses this principle to promote exclusive deals for their models. With their larger size, the spotlight is on “Hot Deals” and the car.
Perspective can add volume and depth to a two-dimensional space. When used effectively, perspective can imitate how we see in real life.
Designers create perspective through vanishing points that create a foreground, mid-ground, and background on a visual plane. The most simple technique is placing smaller objects in the background and leading up to larger objects in the foreground. This gives a perception of depth as the smaller forms appear further away from the viewer.
Here, you can see how Skittles makes use of perspective by twisting the colors of the rainbow and using a variety of sizes for the candy and clouds. This makes some objects appear closer or further away from the viewer.
Color and contrast
Contrast and color signal the viewer where to look and make a composition interesting. You can achieve contrast through color when combining light and dark hues, warm and cool temperatures, or saturated and desaturated colors.
When used thoughtfully, contrast can add intensity and visual interest and can show the relationship or distinction between objects. In this example, Mission’s use of red and whitespace attractively organizes content for the viewer, with an easy-to-read navigation bar in red followed by an image with complementary colors.
Typography: Choosing typeface and font
The right typeface and font can improve usability. In most situations, less is better. Over the top, flashy text can often create a distraction and detract attention from the viewer. Simplicity and balance are your friends—they can prevent the reader from getting lost in the noise and can help them find information easily.
Just as important as the font you choose, though, consider how you can best organize the information with typographic hierarchy. This three-step approach can help organize typographic elements. You can see this hierarchy when thumbing through a magazine, newspaper, or webpage.
Take a look at the following example from Pixar. The most important text is large and stands apart from the rest. Level-two content, the subheading, is emphasized but not as prominent as the movie title. Lastly, the level-three body contains the message in a much smaller font.
Texture and tone
Texture and color tone can bring design to life and create a sense of mood. Texture can take the form of a variety of objects, such as objects we find in our environment, like wood or grain, or artificial objects, including man-made geometric patterns or shapes.
We can see texture and tone at work in digital design. Here, you can see a page for a master-planned community in sunny Los Cabos. Its blend of natural elements and a monochromatic palette creates a mood of tranquility, luxury, and comfort.
Spacing: Provide balance and symmetry
Balance is a key component of effective visual communication. When designers achieve this, they create an orderly, easy-to-navigate composition. The placement of elements can balance a composition and create a steady visual weight.
In design, visual weight is the perceived weight of a visual element. Larger or “heavier” objects gain more attention than “lighter,” smaller objects. Balance can appear asymmetrical, radial, or symmetrical and create a visual direction for the viewer.
When elements of a composition are similar in weight and placed along the same plane, we see symmetry. Apple achieves symmetrical balance in the following ad. The foreground features a single laptop, with two laptops of the same size and position in the background. Although you can’t see a flat surface, the arrangement of the objects creates the illusion that they’re sitting on an imaginary symmetrical plane. Symmetrical design is pleasing to the eye and can create a formal, elegant appearance.
Proximity shows how groups of objects relate to one another. More specifically, people perceive groups that are arranged in close proximity as part of the same group. Alternately, increased whitespace between groups shows a distinction between groups.
Proximity can apply to both text and images and guides users in navigating information, such as this website by Keen footwear. The close grouping of the navigation buttons at the top indicates their relation to one another, and the whitespace creates distinction within the positive space, such as the labels within the lower rows of squares.
Use of motion
Movement can enhance flow and lead the reader’s eyes to certain information. Designers create directional movement in a number of ways, including the use of direct or implied directional lines.
Designers can use motion in design and create a composition that directs the viewer’s attention across the screen. For example, the transitions on the Chewy website supply visitors with quick links they can access easily.
Understand users’ priorities
When thinking about the different aspects of graphic design, consider the priorities of the end user. After all, the goal of design is to appeal to your market audience.
Design with your ideal customer in mind; think about how they typically interact in the digital space. Do they visit websites on mobile devices or larger home computer screens? What type of information interests them? How can you provide maximum usability for your audience?
Put your focus on their needs and interests and you can develop a well-received design framework. Revisit as your priorities change so you can stay on top of user behavior.
Make the most of your graphic design
Stand out with professional graphic design. Graphic designers can make visual hierarchy choices that effectively communicate your business message and brand, whether they’re designing a website, a poster, or an infographic.
Find skilled graphic designers through the Upwork platform. Upwork connects businesses with trusted independent creative professionals.