Hierarchy In Design – A Graphic Designers Perspective

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As a graphic designer, it is our responsibility to communicate through imagery and typography to the world our message. To do so we find imagery that reflects an emotion or we create a design that evokes a feeling or a call to action and in some instances, that may be all we need. More often than not, I find that we put together a cool looking graphic or design and that’s the end of it, maybe throw in some type as an afterthought, maybe throw some layer effects on it and call it a day.

Effective design will have imagery that supports the overall message and theme, clear hierarchy, and powerful and effective typography. Typography is usually one of the first things I notice in a design… what font they used, does the font choice compliment the imagery, is there hierarchy and did they properly and effectively give me the information I need.  A lot of designs I see fail on one or more of these (not to say that every one of my designs is going to hit every one of these perfectly).

One of the biggest issues I see in design is that the information being presented is just thrown on some image, there is no hierarchy and my attention is not being drawn and moved through the graphic from the most important information to the least important information, everything is fighting for my attention at once. To create clear hierarchy, to direct the attention effectively from the most important information to the least important information, there needs to be the effective use of directional queues that can be made using typography and graphic elements.

Typography

Working with companies they generally want information loaded into a graphic, not just a pretty picture, they want it to communicate something and there’s usually more information than you know what to do with. Selecting your imagery then, you have to keep in mind all the information you need to present, have a general idea of empty spaces where you can put your information within the graphic and select imagery that will best compliment your text and the overall message. Once you’ve selected your imagery to use, which is by no means final as often I will get to the end and completely strip out the graphics to find something that compliments the typography and information better, you’re now ready to start putting in your information. Event titles, product names…. headliners, these are the things that have to draw the eye first. The viewer wants to know what this graphic is saying to them up front so they can read more or move on. If they can’t decipher whether this ad pertains to them or not within a couple seconds, they are likely to move on and you’ve lost potential business. With that in mind, there are several ways to differentiate your information giving it more attention or less attention.

Font Sizing

Increasing or decreasing font size is the most obvious: more important information created larger and less important information smaller with maybe some middle ground information being an in-between size. This is generally where I will begin when working through the information. While this may sound easy, it takes some doing to get right and often takes several rounds to place and size correctly.

Color

This is usually one of the methods I see abused. A designer will know that the information needs to stand out so they will pick a color that, stands out, but for all the wrong reasons. It usually doesn’t accent the the graphic like it should and is some outlandish color that your eye is more forced to go to rather than pleasantly directed to. Granted, there have been a number of times where the client says I want it to be our brand colors and you have to please your client, even if they don’t have a lick of understanding about design. If it’s a very strong color I’ll usually use it as an accent color, maybe on some less important information or on symbols (!,?,@,”,*, etc.) but still have it close to the main headline so it draws attention, but softly. Using color to build or detract attention can also look like using a lighter or darker color of the main color being used.

Placement

As previously mentioned, this goes hand in hand with sizing. There are generalization rules of placing the most important information top and left as that is how we read things generally and as a rule of thumb I would subscribe to this as well. As you move through designs though you will find that this is not always a “must do”.

Underlining/Italics/Superscript/Subscript

These are all very useful tools when creating hierarchy within type. I will usually add these in last as I find them least powerful in the tools available to create hierarchy (don’t get me wrong, they are still powerful tools). I don’t like to rely on these though to create my hierarchy, I find them to be nice accents to typography I’ve already established as important or not important.

Directional Graphic Queues

On top of creating hierarchy with the above mentioned methods, I’ll often add in graphic elements that direct the eye of where to go. If the headline doesn’t stand out enough or after the headline there’s still a little confusion about what I should read next, I might add in an arrow or a swoosh or some graphic element that will direct the viewer’s eye on where to go next. It can be accomplished using the same ideas as listed in typography using different sizing, colors and placement.

Effective design and advertisement will not only have eye catching imagery and design, but it should also direct the viewer’s eyes of how to view the graphic. You should always have in mind the end user and how they are going to see the image and how your queues are going to direct them through your creation, a visual map if you will directing the eye step by step through the visual message you’ve created for them.

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