The Principles of Graphic Design: How to use Hierarchy and Emphasis Effectively.

Principles of Graphic Design: Hierarchy and Emphasis
19May, 2014
In this series, we take a look at the principles of graphic design. The principles of graphic design go hand in hand with the elements of design and should be used as a blueprint when working on a project. They provide the foundations on which good design is built and should be considered when undertaking every project, no matter what your experience. In this article, we look at hierarchy and emphasis.

Featured Image: Uovo Performing Art Festival by Atto and Sara Bianchi licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

What is Hierarchy?

Just as a deck of cards has a hierarchy from the Ace down to the Joker, so should every design. A designers job is to communicate a message in a clear and concise manner. Creating an order of importance amongst the elements will go a long way in a achieving this. Therefore, it is essential that time is taken to ensure a clear hierarchy is developed.

So How Does Hierarchy Work?

The principle behind how to develop a hierarchy is pretty straight forward. First, a designer must decide what is the most important element within the design and make this the most prominent. This is called creating a focal point (where the readers eye goes first) or in terms of hierarchy, a primary message. From there, a designer must decide what is the second most important element, which will become the secondary message; then the third most important element, which will become the tertiary element; and so on until all the elements of the design have a considered level within the hierarchy. The main message to understand is that careful consideration is needed to ensure all elements of a design are purposely placed within a structure. It’s not just about making things look pretty!

So Where Does Emphasis Fit with Hierarchy?

Emphasis is just another way to say “make something stand out”. For example, if you were typing a page of text, to emphasis the headings you would either style them in bold, or make them bigger. Therefore, emphasis goes hand in hand with hierarchy as it is needed to create structure within a design by making certain elements stand out.

How to Determine Hierarchy

So, now you are aware that a hierarchy between design elements is needed, but how do you go about determining one? Well, this is the tricky part. A lot of it comes from practice, but here are a few tips to help you out.

  • I like to start with determining what is the primary message, or focal point. Consider, the topic of the design and think about what element is the most important. Which element, is most likely to grab the attention of the reader and “tell a story” about the topic. This may be a line of text, graphic or picture.
  • Next, think about the secondary and tertiary message. Which elements are the second and third most important? Now consider these two with the primary message. Do these three elements give a good overall “picture” of the topic? If a reader were only to see these three elements would they know what the design is about?
  • Now think about the other elements and where they should fit within the hierarchy. What else is important and needs to be emphasised. For example, if you were designing an advert and the goal was to get readers to visit a website, the web address is a very important element. It may not be included in the primary, secondary or tertiary message but needs to be clearly identified.
  • As you move down through the hierarchy (past the tertiary message) it’s fine to have multiple elements sitting at the same level. However, do not have competing elements for the primary, secondary and tertiary message.

How to Emphasize Elements

When you have determined the hierarchy the next step is to start emphasising elements. Again, this can be tricky to ensure you do actually create the intended hierarchy.

  • Size is the most obvious way to emphasis an element. The element which is the biggest is the one that will stand out the most. Differences in size is best used between the primary, secondary and tertiary elements.
  • Weight can play a part as you move down through the hierarchy. Generally this is achieved by making certain words or headings bold.
  • Contrast is something I will expand on in a future article. However, differences in shape, colour and value can be used to create emphasis.
  • White space is a very valuable tool in creating emphasis. An element which is surrounded by plenty of white space will attract the eye.
  • Once you have emphasised each element, wheel your chair back from the computer and take a look at your design. Within a few seconds can you easily determine between the primary, secondary and tertiary message. If not, more emphasis between the elements is needed.
  • Again, wheel your chair back from the computer and take a look at your design. What do you see first, second and third? Is this what you intended? Are these elements in the correct order within the hierarchy? If not, you have emphasised the wrong element/s or given too much emphasis to one or more elements.

Examples of Hierarchy and Emphasis

Below are some examples of hierarchy and emphasis used in everyday design.

Gravox Outdoor Communication

Billboards can be great examples of hierarchy in use. As readers usually only view billboards for a very short amount of time as they drive past, the key messages need to be delivered clearly and quickly. In this example, the primary message (focal point) is a photo of the actual product which was chosen to heighten product recognition within the supermarket. The secondary message is the logo which is used to re-enforce the brand and the tertiary message further explains what the product is. Therefore, in a matter of seconds, the reader knows what the product looks like, what it does and who makes it. Certainly would be effective if you were on your way to the supermarket to buy something for dinner!

Principles of Graphic Design: Hierarchy and Emphasis

Gravox Outdoor Communication by Bonney Creative licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

The French Affair Cookbook

A good hierarchy is clearly evident in this recipe spread. A large photo of the dish is used as the focal point and the secondary message is the second largest shape on the page which is the recipe name. Colour and size has then been used to organise the remaining content in a clear, concise and well structured manner.

Principles of Graphic Design: Hierarchy and Emphasis

The French Affair Cookbook by Kinsmen Collective licensed under CC BY-NC 3.0

Where to Learn More

If you are looking to learn more about design I can highly recommend the book Graphic Design: The New Basics by Ellen Lupton.

Final Words

Good design just doesn’t happen. It requires careful planning and an intended approach. Determining a hierarchy is one of the most single important factors that needs to be considered before beginning the layout of a design.

Check out the other posts in this series:

The Principles of Graphic Design: How to Use Proximity Effectively
The Principles of Graphic Design: How to Use Repetition Effectively
The Principles of Graphic Design: How to Use Balance Effectively
The Principles of Graphic Design: How to use Contrast Effectively

Other articles you may enjoy:

The Ultimate Guide to Typeface vs Font: When to Use Each Term.

About The Author
Matt Smith is a graphic designer and principal lecturer with expertise in print media and web design. He has over 20 years of experience under his belt and has dedicated much of his career to educating others. He founded Edgee in 2014 with the aim of providing quality education for new and experienced graphic designers. With ‘hands on’ experience and qualifications in graphic design, along with a Bachelor of Education in Adult Vocation, Matt combines his passion for design, typography and teaching with his expertise in Adobe Creative Suite to develop eBooks, tutorials and informative articles aimed at helping designers of all levels improve their skills and knowledge.