Visual Hierarchy: What? Why?

Visual hierarchy, by definition, refers to the arrangement or presentation of elements in a way that implies importance.
As a designer, I do just that. I organize elements to influence the order in which I want the audience to see them. When the human eye meets the design, it should automatically know where to go first, second, third, and so on. Hierarchy, visually. Get it?

Think of hierarchy as an inverted pyramid. At the top, you should have your primary message, the one thing that the viewer takes away. Next, you should have your supporting elements. After that is any final details that need to be included – the ones that aren’t necessarily crucial to the message.

Movie posters are an extreme example of visual hierarchy. You typically have a large visual taking up most of the poster (many times, an actor) and secondary is the movie title. Lastly is maybe a date, the actors’ names, “coming soon” and/or all that tiny information at the bottom that no one has ever read.

It’s clear that the actor is the most important in this example. That wouldn’t necessarily be clear if there was a city much larger than him. That would imply that the city is the focus.

Hierarchy Isn’t Just Size

This can be achieved in a number of ways and the answer isn’t always making the type larger or “bolder.” While the size and weight of type are one of the most common strategies in making a message stand out, the overall layout helps to achieve a strong visual impact. Color, scale, balance, and proximity of the elements involved all play into the final product.

What Does Visual Hierarchy Have To Do with Clutter?

I’m glad you asked. It can be tempting to want to add more photos. More text. More texture. More color. More pop-ups. It’s like you’re desperately trying to make your living room look more put together, but you just end up with a mess.
This is where visual clutter starts creeping up and cluttering the message, the vision. Your audience needs to get the basic information, but how much is too much?

Having a focal point is essential to conveying a message. When adding more elements to a design, the hierarchy can become lost.

If there are too many details, everything begins to have the same visual weight. It’s a rabbit hole of trying to make everything stand out, so eventually, nothing stands out and the viewer doesn’t know where to look.

Eliminate the Unnecessary

Consider why you feel the need to add more. Is it actually adding to the message, or is it distracting from important information? Could this information be better utilized somewhere else, such as a website or landing page?

The point is, you need to understand the most important message of your design before starting so you can prioritize it. If you need to make a numbered list of your elements in the order of their importance, do that. From there, you can arrange them visually. When your message comes across to the viewer without them having to even think about it, you ‘ve mastered visual hierarchy.

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