What is Visual Hierarchy? (2022)

Let’s look at a topic that deals with, oddly enough, how we look at designs. Once you understand how the human eye processes these, you’ll find yourself better able to arrange your elements more effectively.

Content in any digital page layout will follow a specific hierarchy. Headers appear above body text. Menus go at the top, bottom, left, or right of the screen (or any combination of these). Designers try to organize content so that they present the highest priority content on any given page first. Then, they deliver the rest of the content from highest to lowest priority.

“Hierarchy” is simply a nicer way of saying organized from most to least important. We also use “hierarchy” to show relationships (where relationships exist) between content blocks.

Users define the visual hierarchy of a website or app. The item that first grabs the eye’s attention is at the top of the hierarchy. Each item that next draws attention is subordinate to the one before it.

Hierarchy Principle

What is Visual Hierarchy? (1)

Author/Copyright holder: Digital Markketing. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY 2.0

(Video) 11 Visual Hierarchy Design Principles - Learn How to Improve and Create Beautiful Graphic Designs

The human eye perceives information visually rather than as blocks of data. Unlike computers, we’re at the mercy of our eyes’ natural tendencies. The reading material we likely encountered as young children featured many pictures and larger print. Whether these were comics, coloring books, or story books, we could take in what was going on because we perceived the illustrations and interpreted the sequence of events alongside the easy-to-read text.

The way we perceive information is affected by several factors that contribute to how we rank the hierarchy of the content within the layout. Jones (2011) showed that the factors that affect hierarchy include:

  • Size: The larger the element, the more attention it will attract, compared to smaller elements. Think of a newspaper headline. The newspaper uses that (large font) header text to signal what the rest of the text (in smaller font) will deliver. Let’s take a hypothetical “breaking story”. Your eye should go right to the headline. Notice how it dominates, spurring you to find out what it’s about?
  • Color: Bright colors are more likely to draw attention than drab shades. We’ve probably all used a highlighter to mark outstanding points on a photocopied handout. Yellow is richer and brighter than white (in the sense that white is more muted), so it stands out. After bright colors, richer and darker ones will grab the eye’s attention. Lighter tints follow, because they seem more washed out and distant. At the bottom of the color hierarchy are the grayscale or muted, subdued colors. Think of a foggy day, and you’re trying to find four friends. One wears a hi-vis vest: he’ll stand out first; the one in a deep burgundy trench coat will stand out next. Someone’s wearing a cream-colored long coat; she’ll be harder to spot. You meet up with each other and start talking, asking where Jim is. Unfortunately, Jim is wearing a smoky gray hoodie and matching sweatpants. He’s seen you all already, though.
  • Contrast: Dramatically contrasting colors will catch the eye more than slightly contrasting colors. Contrast helps you show what’s more important in your design. Everything is relative. Imagine you want to make a design based on an architect’s plan for high-rise apartment blocks. You want to show the light, airy and eco-friendly buildings above ground, but you also need to show the strong, deep foundations and underground car park below. By dividing your design in this way, you’ll draw the eye to the cheery living features of the forest-side apartments. This plays off against the lower section—the footer—where you’re showing the utility and safety side of the structures. A little hierarchy goes a long way to engaging the user.
  • Alignment: Alignment can create order between design elements. For example, placing content and then a sidebar column creates a priority for the reader. We expect important information (such as login buttons) to be in the top right-hand corner of a page. We also see this at work in magazines. If you’re near one, why not flick through; look out for a pull quote. That’s part of, say, an interview, where the writer wants to highlight what the subject said. With its larger font and its break with the alignment of the other text, it makes a hierarchy that draws our eye first.
  • Repetition: Repeating styles can give the viewer a sense that content is related. For example, we’ve presented most of the text in this document in a similar fashion. If we broke that style, say, by using red text, it could quickly draw attention from the familiar surroundings. It worked, didn’t it? What if we did it again? Another good example is hyperlinks. When you visit a page that has lots of blue words underlined, you know right away that you can click to a lot of other pages.
  • Proximity: How closely we place design elements to each other tells our users how likely they are to be related. In our list, we’ve separated items with a single row of whitespace. We don’t separate headers in this lesson from the first paragraph of information. This proximity shows that list items are separate (though not so much as to be completely unrelated to each other) but that headers are related to the content that follows.
  • Whitespace: You can use the space around content (it can be any color, not just white) to draw attention to certain pieces of content. Imagine how much work you’d have without it! It does two jobs: it makes information easier for the eye to digest, and it lets the eye zero-in on each area of information (paragraphs in this case).
  • Texture and style: The use of textures and styles can help prioritize content, too. Like fonts, they can set the tone of the design. Imagine a pair of projects. Two travel agents want a landing page to show their resort package deals. One is beach-themed, one lake-themed. For the beach-themed resort, we presented a background close-up view of the clear water overlying beautiful white sand. The effect was pleasing. However, when we tried repeating that with the lake, we found that the crystal clear water gave us a lot of large, dark pebbles and stones. That texture ended up being too distracting because it was far more textured than the smooth sand.

“Eye-Catching Designs Need Psychology"

Reports from Copenhagen confirm that more designers, especially web designers, are appreciating the need to engage users more directly. Reaching back into their art school days while working a little psychology into the mix seems to do the trick.

Hierarchy Patterns

There are common patterns for hierarchy both on the printed page and for the digital page. These patterns are based on the movements that our eyes tend to make when presented with a fresh page. English, for example, is read from left to right. English readers have a set scanning pattern when facing a page of text. Arabic readers have a different pattern. Why? It’s because Arabic is read from right to left.

It’s important to understand how your audience processes information before adopting a hierarchy pattern. As this lesson is in English, we’ve included two common left-to-right patterns here:

Z Pattern

What is Visual Hierarchy? (3)Author/Copyright holder: Supermariolxpt. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In websites with a

low level of text content

(e.g., websites that act as small advertisements for a business or a product rather than delivering volumes of information), the Z pattern of eye scanning is common. The user sees the “text-lite” page and scans from the top left to top right, then glances down through the content (following a diagonal) to the bottom left, before moving to the bottom right.

You can make use of this pattern by ensuring that you include the most important information along the Z pattern this eye movement follows. You’ll have four points joined by three lines going in a Z-shape.

(Video) CG101: What is Visual Hierarchy?

F Pattern

Designers usually apply the F pattern on websites that include text-heavy content and/or video content.

With the F pattern, users begin by scanning left to right along the top, but then scan down the left side of the page, looking for visual clues to the information they seek. When they find such a clue, they scan from left to right. They repeat this process until they reach the end of the page.

This scanning pattern often produces a heat map that looks like the letter “F”, as shown in the image at the top of this article.

It’s perfectly possible to use both Z and F pattern pages on the same website. For example, you might have a very clean homepage that utilizes the Z pattern; however, when the user delves deeper into the site, you might present much more data and use an F pattern instead.

The Take Away

Hierarchies give us order to make sense of a design easily. We want to prioritize headers and menus according to how we know what our users want and what we want them to do. We process information visually, perceiving elements in the order in which the designer has emphasized them according to:

  • Size — Larger elements will dominate and catch eyes first.
  • Color — Bright colors catch eyes ahead of muted, drab ones.
  • Contrast — Stark differences between elements draw eyes to the brighter one.
  • Alignment — Users expect to find certain elements in the same place.
  • Repetition — A repeated quality (e.g.,colored parts of text) draws the user’s eye.
  • Proximity — Putting related elements (e.g., header with associated text) close together means these are related.
  • Whitespace — Including whitespace around elements singles them out as separate groups of information.
  • Texture and Style — Using distinct textures/styles (e.g., chunky, military-style buttons) draws the eye while setting the theme.

In the Western World, we read designs according to two common hierarchical patterns:

(Video) Understanding Hierarchy in Design

The Z Pattern — In designs without much text, our eye starts scanning from top left to top right, then diagonally down to bottom left, stopping at the bottom right.

The F Pattern — In designs with more text, we scan across the top, from left to right, then down the left, searching for clues to what we want to know. On finding one, we’ll scan across to the right.

You have your user’s eye to guarantee that you can include these factors to make more effective designs. Keep all of these in mind as you plan. Your best effort might involve using them all, including a fusion of the Z and F patterns. Remember that you’re designing for your users. What are they using, and how might they want to see it online?

Where To Learn More

Course: The Ultimate Guide to Visual Perception and Design:
https://www.interaction-design.org/courses/the-ultimate-guide-to-visual-perception-and-design

Jones, B. (2011) Understanding Visual Hierarchy in Web Design.Web Design Tuts Plus. Retrieved from: http://webdesign.tutsplus.com/articles/understandi... [2015, May]

Bank, C. (2015?).“Understanding Web UI Visual Heirarchy”.Awwwards. Retrieved from: http://www.awwwards.com/understanding-web-ui-visual-hierarchy.html

(Video) Visual Hierarchy In Photography — Photography Visual Patterns #6

Bradley, S. (2015). “Design Principles: Dominance, Focal Points And Hierarchy”. Smashing Magazine. Retrieved from: http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2015/02/design-principles-dominance-focal-points-hierarchy/

Cao, J. (2015). ”The 5 Pillars of visual hierarchy in Web design”. The Next Web/TNW. Retrieved from: http://thenextweb.com/dd/2015/04/30/the-5-pillars-of-visual-hierarchy-in-web-design/

FAQs

What is the meaning of visual hierarchy? ›

Definition: The visual hierarchy of a 2D display (webpage, graphic, print, etc.) refers to the organization of the design elements on the page so that the eye is guided to consume each design element in the order of intended importance. Visual hierarchy can be created using: Color and contrast. Scale.

What is visual hierarchy and why is it important? ›

Visual hierarchy refers to the arrangement and presentation of elements within a composition. In the example below, notice how the title is bigger than the copy? That's visual hierarchy at work. Visual hierarchy is important in design because it defines the importance and sequence of elements within a composition.

What is an example of visual hierarchy? ›

The best examples of hierarchy in design come from poster design. Similar to a billboard, posters are usually displayed large outside of a building or somewhere there is high foot traffic, but you have only a few seconds to catch someone's attention before they walk past.

Why is hierarchy important in visual communication? ›

What is visual hierarchy, and why is it important? Visual hierarchy is the laying out of content in a composition in order to effectively communicate information and convey meaning. Visual hierarchy directs viewers to the most important information first, and then to secondary content.

How do you use visual hierarchy? ›

Building Blocks of Visual Hierarchy

Color – Bright colors typically attract more attention than muted ones. Contrast – Dramatically contrasted colors are more eye-catching. Alignment – Out-of-alignment elements stand out over aligned ones. Repetition – Repeating styles can suggest content is related.

Why is it important to understand hierarchy? ›

Hierarchy ensures accountability

An effective hierarchy makes leaders accountable for results, and provisions for their replacing failures with someone new — sometimes through internal promotion. That's how hierarchy ultimately serve the success of the organisation as whole — including owners, managers, and employees.

What is visual hierarchy texture and style? ›

Texture and style

Textures create depth and interesting shapes, but can quickly become too much—so tread lightly. An over-textured design can be distracting and make it taxing to read and understand. Style, or the aesthetic of your design, can help enforce your theme and engage users.

How many types of patterns are there for visual hierarchy? ›

These characteristics fall into four categories: color, size, alignment, and character. Each type of contrast can be used to construct a visual hierarchy.

What is visual hierarchy in advertising? ›

Visual hierarchy is the method of arranging graphic elements by order of importance. By relying on principles relating to size, color, contrast, white and more, you can influence how users interact with your designs, from images to websites.

Which features play a role in determining hierarchy in text? ›

These include:
  • Size. Size is generally the first thing new designers turn to when trying to create typographic hierarchy. ...
  • Weight. Making a typeface bolder or thinner is another easily recognizable way to create hierarchy that's easily identifiable even by non-designers.
  • Color. ...
  • Contrast. ...
  • Case. ...
  • Position and Alignment.

What is visual hierarchy in photography? ›

Visual hierarchy refers to the arrangement or presentation of elements in a way that implies importance. In other words, visual hierarchyinfluences the order in which the human eye perceives what it sees. This order is created by the visual contrast between forms in a field of perception.

What does hierarchy mean in architecture? ›

Hierarchy is defined as when an element is given more importance in comparison with the other element. Hierarchy in architecture is usually given in building design and in construction to create a meaning to the elements, to emphasize. The hierarchy can be created by size, shape, color.

Videos

1. What is Visual Hierarchy? | EXPLANIMATION
(Max Artist)
2. Principles of Design: Visual Hierarchy
(Ctrl+Paint)
3. Typographic Visual Hierarchy in UI Design (4 Examples)
(DesignCourse)
4. 06 | 7 Principles of Visual Hierarchy every Graphic Designer must know | Waleed Mushtaq
(Waleed Mushtaq)
5. Visual Hierarchy in UI/UX | Design Fundamental.
(Tanzeel Ali)
6. BEST WAY To Understand Hierarchy In Graphic Design! *Essential*
(Satori Graphics)

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