Understanding Hierarchy in Design

by
Monica Galvan
Understanding Hierarchy in Design
Hierarchy is a key element in web design, a good user experience, and achieving the goals of a website. It’s also the number one mistake beginner designers make. Let’s dive into visual hierarchy and how you can use it to improve your designs.

What is visual hierarchy in design?

There are many definitions of hierarchy. Most refer to a system of organized rankings, it’s an order or power structure to help everyone know who is on top and most important. For example, at a company, this would be the CEO. The CEO is at the top of the pyramid, the top of the chain of command with various leaders and individual contributors underneath in the organization chart. 

Visual hierarchy, on the other hand, is the principle of arranging elements to show their order of importance. If everything in your design is the same size, the same weight, or the same color, then nothing is important. This is even more paramount in creating a good user experience for web design. You want to capture the attention of your user and guide them through an experience. Whether it’s a large headline, a bright color, or the placement, there are many ways to create a strong level of hierarchy in web design.

Why is hierarchy important?

Now that we understand what hierarchy is, why is it so important specifically for web design? Our brains have to look at something, we have to understand what we should be looking at first. If, for example, there are too many things to look at on a landing page, then our eyes will have no idea where to look first and process information. If the hierarchy is too confusing on a website, a user will get frustrated and exit the site altogether. This creates a bad user experience. You’ve lost a potential customer forever, they’re not coming back.

In order to achieve a goal for your user, you need to use hierarchy to guide them through the website experience. Are they there to log in and make a purchase? Do they need to pay a bill? Are they looking for information to reach out and hire a company? Or is it more for pleasure, maybe a browsing experience like YouTube or Netflix? Whatever the goal, you must work with the client and use your design expertise to achieve it.

Check out this video where Ran walks you through why hierarchy is important in web design.

What does bad hierarchy look like?

Before we take a look at good examples of hierarchy and tips to achieve it, let’s first look at a few bad examples of hierarchy in design, as noted in Ran’s walkthrough in the video above. 

Example of a bad hierarchy in web design
Bad hierarchy in web design #1

In this first example, everything is green, there are too many styles of text, there are drop shadows on the phone number, and the text is difficult to read. The super large logo conflicts with the text version of the brand in the top left-hand corner so there is no sense of clear branding. 

Example of a bad hierarchy in web design
Bad hierarchy in web design #2

In this example, they are trying to call attention to the Important Announcement by locking it into a blue rectangular background. But when you try to read it, it’s actually quite difficult. If the designer used an additional color, varied the type size, and opened up the spacing, then this design could be improved and we could better read the message.

Example of a bad hierarchy in web design
Bad hierarchy in web design #3

This is a super minimal website. Just as the others included too many conflicting elements, this one doesn’t have enough to call anything out in importance. All the text is the same size and color, even the logo isn’t displayed with prominence.

What does good hierarchy look like?

Now let’s take a look at some good examples of hierarchy in web design. 

Example of good hierarchy in web design
Good hierarchy #1

In this example, the message is strong. The large size and stark contrast of the lime green text on the vibrant purple background help us see the headline as the most important element first. We immediately read and understand this company solves eCommerce problems. Next, we notice the beautiful illustration of a team working on their commuters, reinforcing the idea that there is a team of professionals behind the eCommerce problem-solving company.

Example of good hierarchy in web design
Good hierarchy #2

This is a good example of minimal design while still achieving hierarchy. We see the illustration first and then immediately read the headline to understand more about what the company has to offer. From here we can choose to scroll down or click around to learn more. 

Example of good hierarchy in web design
Good hierarchy #3

And in this last example, you see the beautiful visual of the product first. Immediately we see the delicious appeal of these cacao bites. It’s a simple way to pull the user with intrigue into your product. 

Elements of visual hierarchy

Now that we have a basis for what good hierarchy looks like, let’s dive into examples of the main elements you can adjust and change within your design to create a strong hierarchy. You can use one or a combination of a few to enhance your designs.

Size or scale

Our eyes are naturally drawn to elements that are larger in size. When looking at a landing page, we’re likely to notice the largest element first. Take a look at this example, what do you see first?

Landing page design by Ghulam Rasool on Dribble
Landing page design by Ghulam Rasool on Dribbble

The largest element on this landing page is the Visa credit card image. Since this is a website mockup for a bank, it makes sense to include a photo of the actual product. Immediately, the user knows this website is for a bank, a credit card, or something to do with money.

Color 

Another way to achieve hierarchy is to use color. This doesn’t mean your design should include as many colors as possible. Instead, how can you use color thoughtfully to draw your user's attention to a specific design element? In general, our eyes are attracted to bright colors but it depends on how you use them in combination with other colors and other elements of design.

Landing page design by Can Tek on Dribble
Landing page design by Can Tek on Dribbble

In this example, the design uses muted colors but still achieves hierarchy with color. Notice the subtle differences between the headline text and the body copy. The headline is large but the color is pale pink on a dark forest green background. This level of contrast with color pushes the headline to a higher level of importance than the body copy which is in a pastel green and blends more into the background.

Contrast 

It’s important to create contrast in your design, especially when it comes to typography. You need to make sure your text is easily readable on the web and passes accessibility tests. Use this contrast checker tool to make sure your foreground and background are accessible on the web.

But you can also use color to create contrast. In this example, notice how the red text within the mainly black text headline stands out. By using a bright red to contrast the black, our eyes immediately read “early access” first and understand the exclusive nature of the offer.

Example of contrast in web design (Design by Craft Studio on Dribbble)
Example of contrast in web design (Design by Craft Studio on Dribbble)

Alignment 

Using a grid for alignment is extremely important in web design. Without a grid, your design will look chaotic, unorganized, and it becomes difficult for a user to read the content of a website. The more content there is on a webpage, the more of a need there is for a grid.

In this fitness landing page, a 3-column grid is useful for a user to browse the popular exercise section.

An example of landing page with a strong grid (Design by Dwinawan on Dribbble)
An example of landing page with a strong grid (Design by Dwinawan on Dribbble)

Repetition

Our eyes are drawn to patterns. Repetition can be useful for creating hierarchy in your design. In this landing page example, notice how you immediately notice the beautiful plates of food. If it was just one small plate of food, we wouldn’t be as drawn as we are to the grid of plates, showing variation in the recipes of the meals they offer.

Example of repetition on a landing page (Design by Dwinawan on Dribble)
Example of repetition on a landing page (Design by Dwinawan on Dribble)

Proximity

Proximity refers to how elements appear in relation to one another and are one of the most basic elements of composition. By placing related elements close together, it suggests to the user that they are related.

The examples of circles below show how proximity can be used to help us perceive objects as being related. When the circles are random and spread out, they’re perceived as separate objects with no relation to each other. However, when the circles are pulled together in proximity, they are seen as one object and feel related.

An example of proximity.
An example of proximity.

Whitespace 

Knowing how to use spacing properly in design gives your layout balance, flow, and focus. You don’t actually want to fill your entire canvas with type, color, photos, and illustrations. Instead, use white space to create a pleasing design layout and draw your attention to the most important elements.

Take a look at this landing page example. A strong hierarchy is achieved by a large headline but also by the use of generous white space surrounding the type. You can’t help but read the headline first and want to click on the enter button next.

Example of landing page with good use of white space (Designed by Nathan Riley on Dribbble)
Example of landing page with good use of white space (Designed by Nathan Riley on Dribbble)

Texture and style

You can also create hierarchy in design by using texture. An example of how to achieve this effect is shown on the landing page below. Notice how the subtle textures in the illustration create contrast against the smooth background and flat design elements featured in the rest of the landing page. It’s subtle, but the illustration wouldn’t be as impactful without it. 

An example of using texture to create hierarchy in design
An example of using texture to create hierarchy in design

Tips for creating strong hierarchy in design

Choose a focal point

First, decide what your most important takeaway is for your design. This will vary greatly depending on what you’re designing, who the client is, and what their business goal is. But each page of a website should serve one purpose. You’ll want to work with the client to understand their goal so you can narrow it down to one key focal point in your design.

Consider viewing patterns

Subconsciously, everyone has a viewing pattern for how they scan content quickly on the web. The two most popular viewing patterns people use are the Z pattern and the F pattern.

The Z pattern follows a path from top-left to top-right, then down to the lower left, and across to the lower right. Take a look at this example of an Apple landing page to understand how a Z pattern works.

An example of a Z-pattern in web design (Source: xd.Adobe.com)
An example of a Z-pattern in web design (Source: xd.Adobe.com)

The F pattern is utilized more on text-heavy pages, such as blog posts and articles. In this pattern, users scan sites from the top left to the top right, then down to the next line from left to right. This is similar to how the western world reads, from left to right, top to bottom.

An example of an F-pattern in web design (Source: xd.Adobe.com)
An example of an F-pattern in web design (Source: xd.Adobe.com)

Create multiple versions

When designing, you should always work on creating multiple versions. In order for you to arrive at the best visual solution, you need to explore several options. Maybe one version uses color differently, another could shift the order and scale of elements, maybe another focuses on changing the messaging. There are so many ways you can organize the content of a website, be sure to consider all possible solutions before narrowing down to present to the client. 

Critique the design of everything you see

I remember when I first started learning design, suddenly I was so aware and critical of every design around me. Whether it was a poster design for the latest movie premiere, the packaging on a product I was considering buying, a book cover, or a website. This is actually a good thing. It means you’re developing your creative eye. You’re noticing the design around you and how it can be improved. The next time you’re looking at a sign or a product in a store, think about where the design is lacking and where it can be improved. This will train your eye over time and help you make better design decisions faster.

Learn the elements of design and become a successful web designer

Hierarchy is just one principle of design. If you’re interested in learning more about how to improve your web design skills, check out our Flux YouTube channel, more of our blog posts that go deep on specific topics, or one of our Flux Academy courses for a guided process from start to finish. You can learn the core skills you need to know, including hierarchy, to be a successful web designer. Learn online in the comfort of your home, at your own pace. 

If you’re itching to learn more, especially how to make web design a successful career then consider checking out the $10k Website Process, you’ll learn step-by-step not only how to design beautiful websites that achieve your client’s goals but you’ll also learn how to manage the web development process so you can take full control of the entire website and make more money.

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