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  • Writer's pictureGregory Thiessen

A Guide to Visual Hierarchy in Graphic Design

This past fall, I went to explore a wilderness area that I had visited numerous times before. But when I arrived, I noticed a sign posted on a fence at the main entrance to the area I had never seen before.

The sign had a lengthy amount of text and no real heading indicating what it was about. I assumed all the text was a description of the natural area I was entering, so I simply ignored it.

After several hours hiking in the area I was approached by a disgruntled landowner who was annoyed that I hadn’t asked permission to be in the area. Confused, I asked why I needed permission as I had never needed it before. He responded with, “Didn’t you read the sign?” Sheepishly, I told him I hadn’t and promised to ask permission the next time I visited.

When I looked at the sign again on the way out, I realized why I hadn’t bothered reading it: there was a lot of text and no immediate indication that I needed permission to enter the area.

This got me thinking about semiotics (the study of signs and symbols and how they’re used) and the nature of visual hierarchy in graphic design.

I imagined driving up to a stop sign at a busy intersection, and the stop sign was white with several paragraphs of text describing why I needed to stop, how long the stop needed to be for, and so on, without the sign ever saying “STOP” in big bold letters. 

Red stop sign with a comedic paragraph of text explaining why to stop to make a point about visual hierarchy in graphic design.

There is a reason road signage has to be easily distinguishable, clear, and offer very little information; because most drivers are passing by it very quickly, often while there are multiple other signs or advertisements present which they largely ignore. 

If the sign I had seen before entering the backcountry site had said “STOP” first in big bold letters surrounded by a red octagon, I probably would have stopped walking, and then read the smaller text below it.

While bad design doesn’t excuse me from hiking in an area I shouldn’t have, it would have made a difference for me and probably for others approaching the area to have something that communicates clearly. Visual hierarchy matters.

Conversely, if the sign at the entrance used big block letters in all capitals for several hundred words of relatively unimportant text, I again probably would have ignored it. But why?

As a graphic designer, I often follow the motto “too much information is no information.” Like the boy who cried “wolf!” too many times, if everything in a design is screaming for your attention as though it were a matter of life or death, the viewer will simply ignore all of it. 

The art of arranging and presenting information in a visually appealing and easily digestible manner is a skill every graphic designer should understand. Whether it’s working on a logo, poster, billboard, digital ad, or a lengthy document, understanding and implementing effective visual hierarchy in graphic design is key to communicating effectively. Below are some commonly designed items and how information should be structured within them.

Visual Hierarchy in Logos: Simplicity with Substance

While teaching a college class on branding a number of years ago, I had the students come up to the board and draw any logo they could think of that could be identified by only using one unseparated line. Some obvious examples they came up with were the McDonald’s golden arches or the Nike swoosh. Generally the better developed the brand is, the less that is actually needed to be said in the brand’s logo. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important for small brands to also simplify their logos as much as possible. 

A logo generally contains a logomark or icon, a wordmark, and sometimes a slogan or a tagline. While it’s tempting to try to cram as many ideas as possible into a logo, it is important to distill what is important to a brand into one or two key elements.

A brand name needs to be as short as possible, the logomark simple and easy to recognize even at smaller sizes, and colour limited to two or three to make it easier to replicate.

The logomark (if present) and wordmark should remain balanced in terms of size and importance, while the tagline (if present) should never dominate the logo, and should be in a different font than the wordmark. 

With logos, it is especially important to remember that too much information will actually communicate less rather than more to the viewer. Simplicity is key. What is most important to a brand’s visual identity needs to be communicated through a logo at a variety of sizes across multiple different mediums, both in colour and in greyscale. Keeping it clean and simple is the best way to accomplish this. 

Visual Hierarchy in Print Ads and Posters: Capturing Attention at a Glance

Generally, ads and posters can be broken down into four key components: a photo or illustration, a headline, body copy, and a logo. Creating a visual flow between these components is what makes an ad or poster successful. Most read from top left to bottom right because our eyes have been trained to read pages of text in the same way. The most important information comes first. 

This usually means the headline or image should be a clear focal point and draw the viewer in closer to read the rest of the ad or poster. The headline should be near the top of the page with the eye then being guided to the body copy.

The brand’s logo is often placed in the bottom right corner of the ad, along with the most important call to action the viewer should remember, like the URL to a webpage. The final thing the viewer sees will be the most top of mind afterward.

The world’s best brands prioritize striking imagery over an abundance of text, and the image should communicate as much or more to the viewer than the text.

Headlines should be short and catchy, rendered in a large display or headline font and in a colour complementary to the image. Particularly with posters, the headline needs to be large enough to be legible from far away and to draw the viewer in closer to read the rest of the text. 

Other key points for visual hierarchy in designing print ads and posters:

  • Body copy should be given significantly less prominence, in a different, smaller font, and kept a fair distance away from the headline. 

  • Use white space wherever possible, and ensure breaks in text are well-defined. 

  • Utilize contrasting colours to emphasize important elements and employ a limited colour scheme to avoid overwhelming the viewer. 

  • Keep copy succinct with only the required information present. When an excess of information needs to be communicated, it is better to drive the viewer to a webpage via a URL or QR code than cram all the information into the ad or poster. Doing so will only drive people away from the visual. 

  • The logo at the bottom of the page should not dominate the ad and should retain appropriate visual space around it away from other elements. This space is often defined exactly in a brand guide, but usually more space is better than the amount specified.

By breaking the ad or poster down into these key components, the viewer is better able to assess whether what is present is important to them, and if so to access the information without being overwhelmed.

Visual Hierarchy in Billboards: Making a Statement from Afar

When designing billboards, many people think that a sign that is 20’x10’ in size will allow them to include all sorts of information on it and get multiple messages across. But the opposite is actually true: billboards need to contain very little information because people pass by them quickly and often see them from a distance.

After driving by 100s of road signs, advertisements, business signs, etc., the billboard is just one more thing a visually weary driver has to contend with. Less is more on billboards. Deliver a clear and concise message to ensure quick comprehension.

Billboards need to be legible from a long ways away and contain very little text or visual information. They should contain two to three component parts: an image, a headline, and a logo, all three of which should retain similar prominence.

When an image is present, the subject or object must be large, clearly defined, and not against a busy background.

The headline needs to use a large bold font that is easily legible in a colour contrasting to the background. Any other text should be kept to an absolute minimum, and the logo kept large. 

The viewer of a billboard often will not have time for a second glance, so if what is present isn’t legible at first glance, it should be made more obvious or discarded. Testing a billboard design at various distances is the best way to ensure it remains legible.

Visual Hierarchy in Digital Ads: Small With a Punch

Google banner ads or ads built for social media often appear at tiny sizes which can make the legibility of a design tricky. This is where it becomes especially important to have a simple, well-executed logo, and clear, succinct text limited to a handful of words.

A maximum of three elements must be present: an image, a headline, and a logo.

The image should be focused on only one subject or object and should contain nothing that distracts in the background.

Text should contrast strongly with the image or background colour. Any secondary information will not be legible at smaller sizes and should be pushed to a website or copy that accompanies the ad. When designing digital ads it is important to remember that each platform will have its own specifications or requirements regarding size and placement. Because size varies so greatly (Google has 20 display ad sizes for instance), it is critical that the ad be designed to be flexible enough to fit the different sizes and aspect ratios without losing legibility.

Visual Hierarchy in Longer Print or Digital Documents: Navigating Complexity

Information hierarchy in longer documents may seem a bit dreary, but it is still an art form and goes a long way toward making long documents easily digestible.

When beginning the layout of a longer document, it is important to assess early on how many layers of headings and subheadings there are in the document. These headings will help the viewer determine what is most important in a document. 

From there, assigning a typographic style, including font type, size, and colour to each layer will help the viewer orient themselves while reading the document. Headings will be the largest, and each subsequent layer of subheading should descend in size and prominence, and be notably different from the previous one. Other than something like footnotes or legal fine print, the body copy should be the smallest and be in the most easy-to-read font permitted within brand guidelines.

By having body copy that is different in font style and size from its nearest heading or subheading, the viewer can assess where they are in a document quickly, even after reading numerous paragraphs. This sort of grid system throughout the document will make it easier for the reader to follow the flow of information.

Other key points for visual hierarchy in designing longer documents:

  • Increase leading or line spacing. 

  • Keep larger margins. 

  • Retain white space between headings, images, and other graphic elements.

  • Use shorter paragraphs and break up the content into smaller chunks.

  • Utilise bullet points or numbered lists to highlight key points.

  • Break up text with images or other visual content.

Legibility of body text isn’t always best determined by font size. A larger body copy font is not more legible if it comes at the cost of compromising any of the above. White space should take priority over absolute type size as it improves readability and prevents the document from feeling cluttered. The smaller copy actually gains importance being smaller as it becomes easier to read and digest. 

Consider Visual Hierarchy in All Designs

Information hierarchy is the backbone of effective graphic design. The art of arranging and presenting information in a clear, structured way can determine whether a design is looked at or just ignored. These general guidelines above are not hard rules, but broadly encompass best practices for some of the more common design problems.

Other key points for visual hierarchy in designing across all forms of media:

  • Have a consistent visual language from one document, ad, or billboard to the next.

  • Keep a significant amount of white space between the key components of a design.

  • Remember that things placed close together tend to be viewed as a whole, and things that look similar also tend to be grouped together.

  • “Be brief, be bold, be gone.” Say what matters as succinctly as possible. Do so with clarity and conviction. And then leave people alone. Because if you don’t, they will leave you alone. Too much information is no information.

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