Understanding Visual Hierarchy in Design

The most critical step in determining the visual hierarchy in design is asking what you want the very first impression your audience has to be. Once you determine that, you then decide what you want them to notice second and third. Establishing a visual hierarchy helps keep visitors on your site long enough to improve your chances of conversion.

We live in a busy time when everyone has marketing screaming and vying for their attention. Whether it is your phone, laptop, or TV, there is always something clamoring for us to notice. When we encounter a site that intuitively tells us what is most important, it makes the information easier to consume. Once in a while, we find an app, website, or digital product that appeals to us for reasons we may not be able to define. It is often the result of visual composition that causes the attraction without the user, even knowing what it is attractive.

Designers should have a grasp on creating a story through a visual hierarchy, which helps users navigate and interact without effort, thus creating a pleasurable user experience. Creating a visual hierarchy is the foundation for creating a successful product. 

What makes a powerful visual hierarchy?

The use of color, texture, shapes, positioning, fonts, contrast, typography, size, and texture to create a focal point that tells the user to “start here.” Different products, and branding goals, require different methods to create an aesthetic hierarchy. Designers should work with the client’s business goals to determine which elements should be prioritized. 

It has long been understood that we don’t perceive our surroundings individually and with equal attention to each part. Instead, we see them as a whole. Digital content is perceived in the same way. The human brain tends to group similar objects, so we see things of the same size, shape, or color, or our brain organizes them based on order and symmetry. 

To improve the aesthetic hierarchy in guiding users through a digital experience, there are several crucial elements to understand:

  1. Size has a significant impact on visibility. Think of news stories where the headlines for the most important stories appear in a larger font. The same principle is true for whatever visual element you are working with. 
  2. Perspective creates an illusion of depth. Larger items appear closer to us than smaller items. 
  3. White space is a powerful tool. One of the essential tenants of visual composition is what you do not put in your design. Clutter-free white space is a powerful tool to draw attention where you want it. 
  4. Color and contrast, when used together, create an emphasis on a specific area. The wise use of using these two elements together can subtly draw attention. 
  5. In the age of digital marketing, everyone scans. Use the common tendency to scan a page to your design advantage. Most languages are read left to right, and most consumers scan in the same way. Use patterns that flow with the left to write scanning, stopping the eye where you want with the use of other design tips and tricks.
  6. Show relationships between products with proximity. The human brain is wired to equate relational proximity, so keep related products and information close to one another. 
  7. Odd-numbered groups keep interested and create focus. When you show someone a picture with four related objects, they are unlikely to remember any one object. Using the same picture with five objects creates interest and focus, making it possible for the viewer to name several of the objects from memory. 

Understanding visual hierarchy in design is necessary for successful branding and communicating the brand story to consumers. Successful use of visual hierarchy in design creates a more pleasant user experience, resulting in a higher number of conversions. Simplicity is a powerful marketing tool in the digital marketplace because users are overstimulated with information input. Making the user experience easy, through the use of aesthetic hierarchy to guide their experience, provides a welcome respite from information overload.