Often when designers are speaking of their work, they’ll speak of hierarchy and prominence. However, we often forget that not everyone instinctively understands these concepts as clearly as we do. So let’s talk a little about what exactly hierarchy is.
Wikipedia defines hierarchy as “an arrangement of items (objects, names, values, categories, etc.) in which the items are represented as being “above,” “below,” or “at the same level as” one another.” I don’t know about you, but that seems like an awfully complex way to describe hierarchy.
Let’s break it down a bit more
When it comes to design, hierarchy refers to the visual order of importance applied to elements of a design layout. Simply put, hierarchy is the same thing as prioritization. Hierarchy helps guide readers through a design by visually showing them what is the most important. The more information included in a design, the more important hierarchy becomes, because users can only process small amounts of information at one time. If you find yourself having trouble “knowing where to look” or processing a layout, there is a good chance it is due to a lack of hierarchy.
How to establish hierarchy
So, you’re probably wondering how we establish hierarchy. The first step to achieving hierarchy is defining the main point you hope to convey within a layout. This step is tough, because often people try to have multiple “main messages” within a layout. However, it is important to determine the one most important goal. This doesn’t mean you can’t provide multiple kinds of information, but trying to make many things “the main thing” is completely counterintuitive to achieving hierarchy. Once you know the most important goal, you can consider your additional goals and prioritize them in decreasing order. Once you’ve created your prioritized list, you can start designing based on this list, carefully cross-checking as you go whether the design is visually reflecting your prioritized goals.