10 Principles of visual hierarchy for designers

Rangan Das

December 29, 2022

Size and scale play a significant role in shaping the message your design conveys to viewers. Discover how your designs can be geared for impact with the right application of visual hierarchy.

Since the dawn of time, the concept of “design” has existed. We have used design to convey our key messages from the time of the stone tablets to the electronic devices we use today. Every component of our design should work to enhance the user experience and more effectively communicate that message.

We'll learn about key principles of visual hierarchy in art and design in this article and how we can utilize them to enhance our products and users' experiences.

What is visual hierarchy?

Visual hierarchy is essentially the order in which elements of a design are seen by the viewer. 

To rank design elements and exert influence in the order you want your users to see them, you must implement a hierarchy. You can help each piece find its proper place and make the most crucial elements stand out by making use of principles like contrast, scale, balance, and others.

How does visual hierarchy influence design?

Visual hierarchy is a tool to plan the information architecture of your product. It can be a packaging design, a website, or an app. The use of visual hierarchy in design makes it simpler for people to navigate around your product.

This can significantly lessen the effort required to interact with your product. The goal of design is to reduce friction and improve usability for a product, and one important way to do this is by paying attention to visual hierarchy. Here are the key principles and along with examples of hierarchy.

1. Size and scale to draw attention.

Sizing is a very fundamental but important technique that can give some elements greater importance than others and direct the viewer's attention to a certain location. An element's size can be increased to instantly grab the viewer's attention. To avoid devaluing other objects on the screen, you should be careful not to magnify too many or in a way that makes them appear smaller.

Using scale for marketing design. Source: Adweek

Here is an example of Sonic Drive-in using the concept of scale to redesign their billboard designs. The new design uses the shape of the board to represent their slush and thus, stand out with a larger-than-life appearance. The design is minimal, yet the smart use of scale is enough to help it convey a powerful message to anyone who gets a view of the advertisement.

2. Making elements stand out using color and contrast

Like size and weight, colors can be employed to emphasize certain design features. The attention of the viewer will often be drawn to brighter colors considerably more than drab, unsaturated ones. Like how heavier and closer colors look to the eye, higher contrast colors provide a sense of importance. One can even use a color extractor tool to make it easier to work with color palettes and stay consistent. 

No matter where you position that piece in the hierarchy of your design, using a single vivid hue as the main point can aid in drawing attention.

A great example is the packaging refresh on Newman’s Own line of condiments. The new label uses vivid colors to give it a crisp and flat look. Each product has its distinctive label color. The ingredients pictured on the label look vivid as they have contrasting colors. The yellow brand logo and the white text keep everything equally visible on the labels.  

Featured image for Turner Duckworth Refreshes Newman's Own
New packaging design by Newman. Source: Newman's Own | Dieline


3. Adding depth to perspectives

Most interfaces, including those seen on websites and mobile apps, are two-dimensional and frequently appear flat. By experimenting with perspective, you may give the appearance of separation and distance between your parts, which will aid in drawing attention to the key components of your designs.

You can create the illusion of perspective by, for example, making certain components larger than others nearby so that they appear closer to you. Your objects can move slower or faster than those around them by using a parallax motion effect. You can also apply drop shadows or blur to a backdrop or foreground layer to create a dramatic effect.

A subtle example in this regard is the packaging design of Gotham Greens. In what would have been an otherwise flat and minimalist-looking logo, the designers made a cutout in the shape of the vegetable the box contains. The see-through cutout adds a sense of depth, making the packaging design a lot more interesting. 

Editorial photograph
Source: Gotham Greens | Dieline

4. Leveraging viewing patterns

Do you know that when scanning content, everyone has a subconscious viewing habit they tend to employ? The Z pattern and the F pattern are arguably the two most common viewing patterns used by people. This pattern may differ for each individual and may shift significantly based on the type of content they are seeing.

Depending on the kind of content you're designing, each of these viewing patterns has a certain function. Making sure that your material follows these patterns will greatly improve the viewing experience. Let's examine these two patterns closer.


Z pattern

The Z pattern travels from top-left to top-right before descending to lower left and then turning around to lower right.

For content that is not text- or content-heavy, this pattern works best. By structuring your information following this pattern, you may make it easier for readers to go through each part quickly and determine how important you think each one is.

As you can see below, the Mac page on Apple's website is set up to display several options at the top, scan horizontally, and then place a tagline along the diagonal direction. A call to action promoting their product follows. All the information is presented in a pattern that most people are already familiar with. 

Graphical user interfaceDescription automatically generated
Source: MacBook Air, Apple

The F-pattern

On text-heavy pages like articles and blog posts, the F pattern for viewing is more prominently used. Viewers typically scan websites in this pattern, starting at the top left and moving down to the next line from left to right, and so on. This is like the way that most people read in the west.

Although your viewers may scan the entire width of the first few lines, it's important to keep in mind that as they move further down and across, they will typically only scan the left portion of each row as they move quickly to find something that catches their attention.

An example that leverages that F-pattern is the Guardian website. The design puts the breaking news at the top and left, while less important entries are along the right of the web page. 

Graphical user interface, websiteDescription automatically generated
Source: The Guardian

5. Making use of typefaces

The appropriate typeface combinations can draw attention to specific portions of your website and give it its own identity. It is also possible to increase hierarchy and make more significant text parts stand out by using typefaces in various sizes and weights.

Most websites are made to employ varied-size headings as well to emphasize or draw attention to the material that goes with them. It's best practice to utilize heading 1 (H1) as the page's biggest and most significant headline, with headings 2 (H2), 3 (H3), and so on being used to highlight less significant regions. This also enables readers to quickly scroll through pages of text to find the specific passages that pique their interest.

Fonts of the same size can appear heavier or lighter by varying the font weight in addition to the font size. To make them appear to be of equal importance, you can also contrast smaller fonts with heavier weights with larger fonts.

For instance, if you look at Rambert's new ad designs, you’ll see that the brand leverages typography interacting with subjects in their pictures to showcase their impact. This allows the consumer to understand the nature of their services before knowing more about the brand. 

Source: InDesignSkills

6. Use space to guide attention

The area you leave empty is equally as crucial as the space you use. When you first start working on your designs as a blank canvas, you might be thinking of all the ways you might utilize the space to fit as many things as possible.

The negative space between design elements is referred to as "whitespace." It can be used to separate pieces to give them more emphasis or to group elements.

Peet Rivko products use the “less is more” approach in their design, with a lot of white space in the packaging, labels, website, and merchandise. This white space, or negative space, allows the viewer to see the essential bits which convey the necessary information, that is, the product name and the branding. 

Editorial photograph
Design of Plant-based Peet Rivko. Source: Dieline

7. Attention can be drawn through texture and tone.

Even if some components are smaller or lower than other elements on the screen, you may still employ texture and tone to draw the viewer's attention.

Textures can themselves be information or can highlight other information. For instance, the C'est Ça Herbal Soap uses the texture of the soap as a packaging design. 

Editorial photograph
Source: C'est Ça Herbal Soap | Dieline

8. Balance and symmetry

On a page, symmetrical elements can help balance a design and keep it straightforward, well-organized, and simple to read. You can express emphasis on specific elements and make your designs appear more fluid and chaotic by intentionally avoiding balance and symmetry in your designs.

Featured image for A Very Special Water Deserves A Very Special Bottle


Editorial photograph
Symmetry in design. Source: Dieline

9. Alignment

It is simpler to scan adjacent identical content when elements are aligned along the same path since they feel connected.

Consider the tables you can find on numerous apps and websites. Since your eye automatically identifies each column with the alignment of the data, there is no need for column borders when aligning the material in each column.

Many websites with a navigation bar also display this. You quickly recognize this as the navigation bar because the logo and all page links are horizontally aligned, and you are aware of the connection between each page link and call to action.

UI ux landing Web Website home animation  Coffee app ILLUSTRATION
Starbucks web app redesign concept. Source: Behance

10. Proximity

In design, proximity essentially refers to the perception of nearby items as a single unit. You see it every day, and it is that easy. Related information is clustered together on your website or business card to create a visual unit. The reader may believe that two elements are related if they are placed close together, which will encourage them to continue reading or participating.

Clustering similar information in packaging design is an implementation of proximity. Source: Behance

Using visual hierarchy effectively

We've covered a wide range of visual hierarchy ideas and applications for design. When it comes time to put them into practice and find a way to balance all these principles in one design, they might all seem to make sense at first, but they might all become more perplexing.

The use of visual hierarchy can help you give design elements more weight, but the more "most important" elements you choose, the more difficult it will be to make your design flawless. Start simply and concentrate on the one element that is most crucial to the success of your design. Develop your design over multiple iterations. 

A PDF Comparison Tool can help you track changes across versions. With a creative collaboration tool, you can also collaborate with others easily as you develop the design.

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