Principles of design: Hierarchy

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Principles of design: Hierarchy
Posted on November 21, 2014 by Simon Dunn

Reading Time: 3 minutes

The (mis) conception about graphic design is that it’s all about creativity. As with most things in life it’s a little more complex than that. Creativity is just one part of the job; it’s not all hipster beards and cool tattoos. It goes a bit deeper.

I love design, it’s fascinating and in some ways frustrating, but you never consider yourself to be a good designer because you are always learning, and only ever as good as the last thing you did. It’s like the rabbit hole, the deeper you look, the deeper you fall.

To start the journey, the foundation of good design is built on a set of common, though not uniform, rules or principles that help anchor designers. I hear you ask, dear reader. “Simon what are these principles? We’re intrigued, tell us more…” Well I shall spill the beans – our secrets will be revealed in this and several following articles…

As market researchers many of you will be familiar with analysing the way people look at visual stimuli and deconstructing how they ‘read’ an image, so I’m not going to tell you how to create the desired response in your audience. However, I am going to tell you about some of the rules designers are trained in, and follow or break, in order to create that visual stimulus in the first place.

They are, in no particular order

• Hierarchy
• Alignment
• Balance
• Proximity
• Consistency and repetition
• Contrast
• White space
• And finally, the grid

So now I have committed to this betrayal of my trade, revealing its deepest hidden secrets, let’s look at the first rule…

Like most of these rules it’s a pretty simple concept. By using colour, contrast, texture, shape, position, orientation, and size, we organize elements on a page so the person seeing the design gets a sense of the importance of different elements.

We use differences in elements to indicate their hierarchy. This allows us to guide the reader’s eye across the design.

img 1

In the poster design above you can see that the designer has used size, position and text case to control the hierarchy. So, for example, the title is clearly the most important element – in large capitals. This is followed by the name of the company above the title, and the core information (date, venue etc).

The second image below shows a mark up of what I see the hierarchy as, or rather the order the elements will be read in. Most people reading a poster will screen out the logos at the bottom as they know they will be sponsors, and will be searching for the core event information so their eye will be drawn to that.

Img 2

Using this method you can effectively read the designer’s mind and get a feeling for the visual priority of the design elements. Here we are doing consciously what viewer would normally do subconsciously (and you might measure in research with heat maps).


If you’re interested in learning more about design then look out for our next newsletter, where Simon will explore alignment. Simon also shared some insights about infographics in a webinar with NewMR, you can check that out here. And if you want to know more about how we can help you, please get in touch with Simon at