Visual Hierarchy 

The Basic Idea

If you squint at a website, such as the one you’re viewing now, something interesting happens: As the details blur, the overall structure of the page becomes clearer. You can easily identify all the main elements of the design, from the navigation bar at the top to the prominent headers that separate each block of paragraph text. Viewing a website through this blurred lens allows the overall organization, or hierarchy, of the page to shine through.

Visual hierarchy is a design principle that involves arranging design elements to communicate their order of importance and guide the viewer's focus.

In graphic design, creating visual contrast between elements—by manipulating their size, shape, position, or other characteristics—causes some to stand out. Elements that stand out appear more important than others, and viewers direct their attention to these elements first.

Consider how your eyes move around an e-commerce website. You might be drawn to the logo and navigation menu, sitting at the very top of the page and attracting your initial attention. This is by design—it’s crucial to notice these elements first because they help you navigate the website. When you scroll down the page, you’ll find large headlines and bright buttons that help you find the information you need to browse and buy products.

Without a clear visual hierarchy, all elements on a webpage appear equally important (or unimportant). In the case of a disorganized website, our eyes bounce around without any clear direction or point of focus. Viewing these websites is overwhelming enough, now imagine trying to navigate to different pages and find specific information. Needless to say, crafting a strong visual hierarchy is vital to creating a smooth and enjoyable user experience.

“A good visual hierarchy saves us work by preprocessing the page for us, organizing and prioritizing its contents in a way that we can grasp almost instantly.”


- Steve Krug, author of Don't Make Me Think, Revisited: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability

Theory, meet practice

TDL is an applied research consultancy. In our work, we leverage the insights of diverse fields—from psychology and economics to machine learning and behavioral data science—to sculpt targeted solutions to nuanced problems.

Our consulting services

Key Terms

In web design, visual hierarchy follows a few basic techniques, or design principles, that guide the viewer’s eyes to certain elements on the page.1 Let’s go over a few of these fundamental principles.

Scale and Proportion: The size of one element in relation to another. Using varying sizes in a design can indicate a rank of importance, with larger elements typically holding more importance than smaller elements. For example, consider a product page on an e-commerce website. The “add to cart” button is typically larger than buttons for selecting the size or quantity of the item, indicating its relative importance.

Alignment: The placement of graphic elements and text on a page to create visual connections, smoothly guiding the viewer’s eyes from one element to another and giving the design a sense of balance. Whether elements are aligned vertically, horizontally, or both, alignment establishes a hierarchy where elements near the start of a row or column appear more important. Website navigation bars are a good example here: The most important links appear on the far left while less crucial links end up on the right.

Contrast: Establishes noticeable differences between elements to signal that they are distinct.2 Color is often used to create contrast in designs, with bright colors indicating greater importance than muted or neutral shades. For example, call-to-action (CTA) buttons often sport bright colors that draw the eye while unsubscribe buttons tend to appear washed out.

Typography: The use of fonts, sizes, styles, and spacing to establish a visual hierarchy in text content. Designers adjust font characteristics to distinguish headings and subheadings from the main text. For example, headings tend to be larger and bolder to establish their importance to other text elements. 

Whitespace: The empty or negative space within a design. White space helps enforce the visual hierarchy of a design by drawing attention to certain elements, improving readability, and organizing elements into groups.3 On websites, you’ll often see plenty of whitespace around headers, product images, and buttons.

Proximity: The concept that placing elements close together suggests that they are related in some way.1 On the other hand, elements spaced apart appear to belong to separate groups. Drop-down menus and website footers often display this principle, where lists of options are grouped to make it easier for viewers to find related information.

History

Visual hierarchy is far from a new concept. Through the ages, humans have naturally arranged information into hierarchies, assigning more importance to items that appear bigger, bolder, brighter, or otherwise distinct. Consider this: Our ancestors intuitively arranged cave drawings to emphasize certain elements, depicting some animals larger than others or using bold lines and shading to highlight certain figures.4 

When we look back at the evolution of art over time, we can see many examples of artists using visual hierarchy to direct the viewer’s eye through their works and emphasize elements along the way. Notable visual artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent van Gogh, and Claude Monet are famous for using textures, lines, and colors to manipulate perspective and visual weight, creating focal points and promoting an effortless visual flow in their work.5

During the print era of the 15th century, these artistic design principles were adapted for use in text publications and graphic design. Newspaper designers applied visual hierarchy principles to headlines, images, and text blocks to guide the reader’s gaze across the page. Visual hierarchies also showed up in early billboards, film posters, magazines, catalogs, mail flyers, and other graphic print designs. 

Eventually, this design principle was given a name. The term “visual hierarchy” is based on Gestalt psychology, a 20th-century theory of perception developed by German psychologists Wolfgang Kohler, Max Wertheimer, and Kurt Koffka. This school of thought states our brains automatically group and organize what we see into whole, structured objects rather than a collection of individual elements. Visual hierarchy draws upon many of the principles developed by Gestalt psychologists, called Gestalt principles, that describe how we organize visual elements into meaningful patterns.

Over time, Gestalt principles became fundamental to design, influencing how designers arranged elements in both traditional and digital mediums. Today, designers crafting digital interfaces rely heavily on these design principles when establishing visual hierarchies to improve usability.

Consequences

Encouraging User Engagement and Action

Visual hierarchy impacts various aspects of design and user experience. For one thing, the concept plays a crucial role in guiding user engagement and ensuring people notice important information, allowing users to get the most out of digital products.6 For example, visual hierarchy helps website visitors find navigational content that allows them to use the website as easily as possible.

Web designers can also use principles of visual hierarchy to direct user behavior. For example, making a button larger or brighter than the surrounding elements can encourage users to click it. As a result, visual hierarchy isn’t just useful for improving user experience but can boost conversion rates for businesses as well.

Conveying Complex Information

A visual hierarchy is also helpful for simplifying information to improve readability. For example, client deliverables can be complex and difficult to understand, especially when they contain technical information. Establishing a clear visual hierarchy in these reports ensures that key information is scannable by readers of all disciplines.7 Think about how business reports often include infographics and contrasting headers to highlight crucial information. This makes important insights accessible to decision-makers who may lack the technical expertise.

Delivering Marketing Messages Quickly

Creating a strong visual hierarchy is especially important when designing marketing materials. Considering that a mere 4% of digital ads are viewed for more than two seconds, marketers only have a brief window to get their message across.8 Whether it’s a social media post or a marketing email, arranging text and image elements strategically ensures people will see the most important information.

Enhancing Visual Appeal

Beyond these functional applications, visual hierarchy can also improve the visual appeal of designs. Organizing elements in a design to indicate their order of importance creates a clear path for the viewer’s eyes, enhancing the overall viewing experience. Similarly, highlighting focal points through the use of colors and other contrasting characteristics can create visual interest and encourage viewers to linger on designs a little longer, increasing the likelihood that they’ll resonate with a marketing message or take a desired action on a web page.

Controversies

The Subjectivity of Design

Subjectivity is one of the biggest issues with using visual hierarchy principles to guide design. Whether a design has a good or bad visual hierarchy can be open to interpretation because people have different aesthetic preferences. This can result in disagreements over which elements should be prioritized, and how to emphasize these elements.

Visual Hierarchy and Brand Identity

Another common problem occurs when designers try to replicate the visual hierarchy of successful websites and expect similar results. Visual hierarchy principles are not one-size-fits-all. For example, Apple is known for a minimalist design that focuses on individual products while Amazon employs a busier hierarchy to emphasize its vast product catalog. Both brands know what information is most important to their customers and craft visual hierarchies around this understanding.

Cultural Differences

Designers must also consider that cultural differences could affect how people view and understand content. People from different cultural backgrounds, with different norms and values, may interpret visual hierarchies differently. For example, cultures that read from left to right naturally expect information to flow in this direction, while cultures that read right to left may have different expectations for the layout of information.

Moreover, research suggests that cultural differences can affect how people prioritize elements in a design.9 While people from Western cultures tend to focus on focal points, people from East Asian cultures devote more attention to the context and background. This suggests that visual hierarchies may need to be tailored to accommodate different cultures.

Balancing Aesthetics and Accessibility

Simple visual hierarchies can enhance accessibility, making it easier for people with visual or cognitive impairments to access information and navigate interfaces. However, some visual hierarchies can have the opposite effect.

For example, sometimes designers use low-contrast colors to draw attention away from certain elements, such as unsubscribe links in emails or exit icons on popups. When these elements appear washed out, they can be impossible to see for people with visual impairments.10

Similarly, designers might hide the navigation bar on a website to draw more attention to a striking hero image or bold header copy. Sometimes, the navigation bar only appears when you scroll down the page or click a small menu icon. This can be confusing for users, namely older demographics who are unfamiliar with web design trends.

Designers constantly walk a fine line between creating designs that are visually appealing and accessible to people with disabilities. In general, it’s best practice to create straightforward visual hierarchies that make life easier for all users.

Case Study

The Apple website is an exemplary case study in visual hierarchy.

Immediately after loading the website, you’re greeted with a large product image that fills the entire screen. Here, Apple showcases its flagship product—the most important product in its current lineup and the one that deserves most of our attention.

The hierarchy of the rest home page effectively guides our attention past several other prominent products, many of which span the width of the page. Apple employs stark contrast and whitespace to separate these products from each other and establish their individual importance.

In terms of typography, the name of each product appears in big, bold font. Apple knows viewers will resonate with these product names more than their catchy descriptions, which appear below each heading in slightly smaller font. Every product is also accompanied by two blue links, labeled “Learn more” and “Buy.” These CTAs grab your attention because it’s the only text content on the page not in black and white.

You’ll find a similarly smooth hierarchy in the navigation bar at the top of the screen. The “Store” tab is the first menu item you see when scanning the menu from left to right, making it easy to explore products if you’re unsure where to start.

Apple’s simplistic visual hierarchy employs a variety of design principles, including whitespace, typography, color, contrast, and alignment, to provide visual cues and direct users towards important content easily. This creates a seamless user experience and certainly contributes to the company’s success.

Related TDL Content

Gestalt Psychology

We touched on Gestalt psychology above, but there’s a lot more to learn about this fascinating school of thought. The emergence of Gestalt psychology in the early 1900s paved the way for a wave of exploration and inquiry into the nature of consciousness. This article delves into the details behind this theory of perception and how it came to be.

Dark Patterns

While visual hierarchy aims to help viewers find and understand information, dark patterns obscure information to confuse and trick users. Dark patterns are manipulative design techniques that mislead users into taking unintended actions, like buying a product they didn’t want. Learn more about this unethical design strategy and the possible repercussions for deceiving consumers.

References

  1. Iakovlev, Y. (n.d.). Visual Hierarchy Principles in Graphic Design. Zeka Design. Retrieved March 1, 2024, from https://www.zekagraphic.com/visual-hierarchy-graphic-design-principles/
  2. Gordon, K. (2020, March 1). 5 Principles of Visual Design in UX. Nielsen Norman Group. Retrieved March 1, 2024, from https://www.nngroup.com/articles/principles-visual-design/
  3. White space in web design: What it is and how to use it. (n.d.). Wix. Retrieved March 1, 2024, from https://www.wix.com/blog/white-space-design
  4. G, N. (2023, May 28). Mastering Visual Hierarchy: A Comprehensive Guide for Web Designers. Web Designers USA. Retrieved March 1, 2024, from https://webdesignersusa.com/mastering-visual-hierarchy-a-comprehensive-guide-for-web-designers/?amp=1
  5. Visual Hierarchy in Art. (n.d.). Fine Art Tutorials. Retrieved March 1, 2024, from https://finearttutorials.com/guide/visual-hierarchy/
  6. The Power of Visual Hierarchy in Digital Marketing. (2023, May 3). NX Digital. Retrieved March 1, 2024, from https://www.nxsa.co.uk/post/the-power-of-visual-hierarchy-in-digital-marketing
  7. Gaskin, J. (2022, July 27). What is Visual Hierarchy & Why It's Important in Business Communication. Venngage. Retrieved March 1, 2024, from https://venngage.com/blog/visual-hierarchy/
  8. Kirkpatrick, D., & Kelly, C. (2016, July 28). Study: Only 4% of digital ads are viewed for more than 2 seconds. Marketing Dive. Retrieved March 1, 2024, from https://www.marketingdive.com/news/study-only-4-of-digital-ads-are-viewed-for-more-than-2-seconds/423433/
  9. Chua, H. F., Boland, J. E., & Nisbett, R. E. (2005). Cultural variation in eye movements during scene perception. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 102(35), 12629-12633. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0506162102
  10. Aesthetic Appeal vs. Accessibility: The Design Dilemma. (2023, April 20). June / Karlove agency. Retrieved March 1, 2024, from https://www.junekarlove.com/insights/aesthetic-appeal-vs-accessibility-the-design-dilemma

About the Author

Kira Warje

Kira Warje

Kira holds a degree in Psychology with an extended minor in Anthropology. Fascinated by all things human, she has written extensively on cognition and mental health, often leveraging insights about the human mind to craft actionable marketing content for brands. She loves talking about human quirks and motivations, driven by the belief that behavioural science can help us all lead healthier, happier, and more sustainable lives. Occasionally, Kira dabbles in web development and enjoys learning about the synergy between psychology and UX design.

Read Next

Notes illustration

Eager to learn about how behavioral science can help your organization?