Understanding Visual Hierarchy: Definition Plus Principles

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 26 September 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Visual hierarchy is an essential aspect of graphic and web design. Designers use it to organise information in order of importance to attract viewers and increase interactions. Learning about the hierarchy of visual elements can give you an understanding its importance in the design process and help you understand how to use it. In this article, we define visual hierarchy, discuss the importance of its principles and provide tips on how to implement it in web design.

What is visual hierarchy?

Visual hierarchy refers to the ordered arrangement of graphic elements in a design based on their importance. Designers and developers can use hierarchy principles to lay out components in a webpage, allowing users to interact with the content more easily. This means that the header is typically at the top of the page in the largest font, with subsequent elements sized based on their importance. Organising the elements in a logical and structured manner can allow designers to influence the user's perceptions and guide them toward the desired action.

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Hierarchy principles and their importance

Hierarchy principles are guidelines that graphic designers use to produce effective results and draw visual attention to the right places on webpages. These principles can also help them develop an aesthetically pleasing display. Some of these principles include:

Size and scale

The louder a sound is, the more likely you are to hear it. Similarly, the larger the font is, the more likely you are to see it. This principle dictates that the more important content on a display page requires a larger font to increase visibility, whereas the less important information can use a smaller font. Try to maintain a balance when selecting font sizes for your design.

Colour and contrast

You can increase the visibility of essential elements using colour and contrast. Bright colours attract the user's attention more than grey and pale colours. You can use contrast to highlight the essential elements if your design has a colourful background. Colour contrast is the difference in brightness between the foreground and background. Aiming for a contrast ratio of 4:5:1 can help you implement contrast appropriately into your projects. High contrast can bring out the major points you want to convey. Excessive use of colour and contrast might confuse the user, which makes it important to use them in moderation.

Typographical hierarchy

A typographical hierarchy is a system of organisation that establishes a logical order in a data set. It arranges information based on size, font and layout and shows users where to look for specific details. The three levels of typographical hierarchy are headings, subheadings and bodies. Dividing the content into sections makes the design attractive and easy to navigate, allowing users to scan for information efficiently.

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Spacing

Negative or white space is the area of the layout left empty. It gives your layout balance, flow and focus. You can use it to separate your content into sections and organise your elements so they appear well-ordered. You can also use spacing to isolate focal points, which gives the viewer's eyes a place to rest and provides a path to navigate the design.

Proximity

Placing similar design elements close together produces a more effective visual design. It suggests a relationship between elements that can help tell a story, show structure or explain an idea. In the same way, separating elements can help you appropriately display distinct concepts in the same design.

Rule of odds

The rule of odds is a core principle whereby designers combine an odd number of images to attract attention. This principle is commonly used in the logo-making industry. It involves emphasising an object by strategically positioning it at the centre of a group with an equal number of neighbouring objects on both sides. This arrangement makes users perceive that the central object is the most important focal point.

Repetition

Repetition provides consistency throughout a webpage and can result in a unified web design. To achieve this, consider repeating elements such as font, shapes, colour and size throughout the composition. This can clearly define the design, boosting understanding and recognition. Repetition can also give elements a new meaning. For example, you might see blue underlined text on a page often enough to recognise it as a hyperlink that may provide more information about a topic.

Implied movement

This tactic creates a path design that guides viewers to the most important information. You can use leading lines in the form of shapes, objects and interactions between black and white spaces to provide a sense of direction. The lines can be vertical, horizontal, z- or s-shaped.

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Rule of thirds

The rule of thirds is a method that divides graphics or images into nine-thirds by creating evenly spaced grids with three columns and rows. This grid contains four intersection points where the two vertical and horizontal lines meet. These intersection points show the natural focal points of the human eye when looking at an image. Designers can use this rule for alignment and proper image placement to attract the viewer's attention. You can modify this rule to meet the objectives of your different designs.

Perspective

Designers often use perspective to give the illusion of depth. You can increase and magnify the sense of perspective through the arrangement of the display elements. This can enable developers to create a 3D image. For example, an illustration of a road may be broader at its lowest point and grow narrower as it spans across the canvas. By using scale and proportion, larger objects may appear closer to the viewer than smaller ones.

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Viewing patterns

Many viewers scan the page to determine their interest before reading through the content. These scanning patterns are often in the shape of an F or a Z. You can often find the F pattern when reading articles and blog posts. It involves viewing the page content from the top left corner horizontally towards the top right. The viewers then move vertically down on the left side, looking for subheadings or headlines with interesting keywords. Once they find an interesting subheading, they read through the content horizontally from left to right, in an F fashion.

Graphic designers can use this knowledge to position important information on the left side with captivating keywords. In contrast, viewers often use the Z pattern for advertisements and websites. They scan the information from the top left, moving horizontally to the top right, diagonally towards the bottom left and finally to the bottom right. Designers can place important information on the corners and connect the bottom and top of the page in a diagonal pattern to capture the user's attention.

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Tips on implementing a hierarchy of visual elements

Learning about the principles of hierarchy is important, but you may need more support in order to execute them appropriately in the web design process. Here are some tips to guide you in implementing these principles:

Establish the target audience

Information architecture aims to create a design that users can easily navigate with minimal effort. Analysing and understanding the target audience can help you select suitable information architecture for the design. This can give you an idea of how to arrange the content, colours, shapes, images and fonts you select.

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Determine the important information

The primary aim of the process is to provide a structured way of highlighting important information on a webpage. Giving equal importance to everything may create a distracting design that confuses the viewer. The first step is to analyse the content and determine which information is important and which isn't. This can help you choose the webpage's layout, fonts, colours and contrast.

Understand the content type

The content type can define the layout style you use. You can use this information to determine the viewing patterns that can help you organise sections and elements appropriately. For example, viewers may use the F pattern when reading articles and blog posts, and the Z pattern for advertisements.

Consider mobile design

When creating your design, it's important to consider how it might look on a mobile device. Desktops and laptops tend to have a larger display, which may mean that the design appears more clearly and less congested than on mobile devices, which usually have a significantly smaller one. Consider creating an alternate layout for the same information that highlights all the key features and information specifically for mobile devices. This can increase visibility and reach for those without desktops or laptops.

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