What is visual hierarchy

What is visual hierarchy

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We’ve all experienced information overload. Slides that are just too dense. Web pages with no clear call to action. Forms with too many options.

“If everything looks the same, then you see nothing,” explains Miguel Cardona, Designer Advocate at Figma. "Visual hierarchy can change that."

What is visual hierarchy?

Visual hierarchy is the practice of arranging elements in order of importance, to direct a user’s attention to content and tools that can meet their needs. What catches their eye first? Then where do they look? Do users take the action you intended and feel satisfied by the outcome

Done well, visual hierarchy helps people understand information intuitively. It’s how audiences can quickly understand from a glance at a movie poster what the movie is about, who’s in it, and its release date. Look closer and you might spot less critical information, like its rating and studio affiliation.

7 essential visual hierarchy principles

Visual hierarchy takes inspiration from Gestalt psychology, which explores how the mind creates order out of chaos, makes patterns, and groups separate elements into a unified whole.

Designers apply eight key visual hierarchy principles to help the mind grasp ideas quickly.

1. Alignment refers to the placement of one visual element in relation to the others in a group. When objects are aligned, or lined up, they're understood as related to one another.

2. Color is often described in terms of hue, lightness, and saturation. Color can be tricky, though, because people perceive it so differently. To establish a clear visual hierarchy, Cardona specifies luminance and brilliance in design.

3. Contrast is when notably different elements are close together. Designers often juxtapose warm and cool elements or complementary colors to enhance visual appeal and boost contrast ratios for accessibility.

4. Proximity describes how near or far items are in relation to each other. Grouping or “chunking” objects is an example of this principle in action.

5. Size refers to the dimensions of an object or design element. The size of UI elements like buttons or content can be an important consideration for accessibility. “If you don't provide low-vision users the opportunity to have agency over text and image size, you're making your content difficult to read and understand,” Cardona says.

6. Texture is the way a surface feels or a UI element is perceived to feel. "Texture allows you to ascribe meaning to design, and may help give a clear visual indication of how something is to be used," says Cardona. When UI designers use texture to mimic the appearance of tactile, real-life material, that's referred to as skeuomorphism—and it can come across as dated or literal unless handled carefully. "With digital design, a lot of designers avoid texture—but it can be really impactful,” Cardona explains. “Texture can be used to create highlights, instead of relying on color."

7. Time unfolds on screens differently than on printed pages and static products. Screens can change, react, and transform, opening up a new world of temporal design.

Inspired visual hierarchy examples

Cardona’s favorite example of visual hierarchy is the work of Massimo and Lella Vignelli.

“The thing about the Vignellis and their work is the way they employ scale and hierarchy. Their work is just out of this world,” Cardona says.

“The Vignellis designed books, print posters, spaces, furniture—all with this interplay of scale, understanding that there's something for you based on your relationship to that object. For every degree of distance that you have from a design, there is an engagement point.”

You can browse the Vignelli archives here. On Figma, the community also honors the Vignelli legacy via Figma design resources.

5 visual hierarchy pro tips

From his experience teaching design and creating Figma design resources, Cardona shares these five takeaways on visual hierarchy.

  1. Know your end user and their context. You might be designing a visual hierarchy for a mobile device—but that device is in someone’s hand at a specific space and time. “Are their users rushed, or are they able to peruse content at their leisure? Do they have a child in their left hand and a bag of groceries in their right?" Cardona asks. "Designers can forget the context of the individual trying to make sense of their hierarchy. We assume that everybody is the same distance from their phone, but what happens when other things are at play?”
  2. The medium matters. When it comes to creating visual hierarchy, Cardona says, the medium determines which principles are going to be the most useful in actual practice. For example, when it comes to a billboard or a mobile app, scale will be one of the most important factors in your design.
  3. Question, experiment, test, and iterate. Don’t be afraid to be bold and try new things—because when everything looks the same, nothing stands out. Digital design thrives on creative iteration and beta testing, says Cardona. Once your work is released into the wild, you’ll start to see how people are interacting with it, creating a feedback loop that inspires further optimization.
  4. A little goes a long way. “Often, people try to do too much,” Cardona observes. "Seeing what’s necessary might reveal a better solution.” Using white or negative space effectively is a tactic long used by Apple and Google that’s worth revisiting, he says.
  5. Consider progressive disclosure. Progressive disclosure is a technique UX designers use to break up information or steps into more digestible chunks. By sequencing content across several screens, the approach lowers the chances that someone will feel overwhelmed by what’s in front of them. “That's something all designers need to work on,” says Cardona.

Get a headstart on visual hierarchy with Figma

As you work on your next design project, Figma's tips and tricks for visual hierarchy will help you communicate more effectively.

Figma’s all-in-one design platform streamlines collaboration with an online whiteboard built for researching, brainstorming, designing, testing, and easy handoff. Widgets, sticky notes, and templates bring your design to life, step by step.

Explore visual hierarchy with Figma.

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