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Why Visual Hierarchy is fundamental to UI design

Web pages and apps go beyond functionality. Development also involves thinking about layout, and attracting users’ eyes to the desired place at the right time, encouraging them to act as expected – in other words, it involves thinking about visual hierarchy.

Visual Hierarchy is the principle of organizing elements to show their order of importance, distributing them in a logical and strategic way to influence users’ perceptions and guide them towards desired actions.

Generally speaking, it is the visual hierarchy that determines which elements will receive the user’s attention, drawing their eyes directly to the desired focus at the right time.

This can be used to encourage newsletter subscriptions, promote specific content, highlight a new product, or even guide a sequence of actions in an application or clicks on call to actions (CTAs).

Another relevant factor is user experience. When building a responsive layout, a pleasant and intuitive visit should always be taken into account, making the user genuinely enjoy their journey – and you can use a flowchart maker to simplify these processes.

An interface’s visual presentation is essential for:

  • Informing users: the interface should guide the user from one action to another and establish a relationship between them;
  • Organizing clearly: maintain consistency throughout the elements of your application;
  • Effectively communicating your brand to your audience: creating a positive emotional impact and providing your user with an enjoyable experience.

What are the objectives of visual hierarchy?

1 – Orientation: build a layout which will guide the user from one action to the next, without them feeling pressured or forced to visit certain pages.

2 – Communication: create links in the user’s mind in order to reduce the cognitive load they receive, reducing their effort to find information and the path they should follow. 

3 – Emotional impact: your app should contain elements that engage the user so they connect with its content and actions, making their experience more enjoyable.

The principles of visual hierarchy

Visual hierarchy is crucial to the success of any project. Here are some rules which you should be aware of:

  • Size and scale: larger elements are more important;
  • Color and contrast: bright colors stand out more than dark colors;
  • Typography: font size and type provide differentiation and highlights;
  • Proximity: separates elements from each other and creates sub-hierarchies;
  • Whitespace: makes viewing easier;
  • Alignment: creates order between elements;
  • Repetition: assigns meaning to elements;
  • Main lines: direct the user’s gaze;
  • Rule of thirds: imagine the screen divided into 9 squares (like a game of tic-tac-toe) and decenter the object you want to highlight, placing it at the intersection of these lines.

While it is important to study each of the principles, it is not necessary to use them all at the same time; instead, analyze the design according to your needs, and apply what fits in each case.

To make the most of the information available, and give users the best experience possible, let’s look at some of the principles of visual hierarchy in further detail:

Typography: text is present in most user-focused interfaces, which is why it plays such a fundamental role in visual hierarchy. Providing emphasis and importance means working with several text characteristics, in addition to size.

A combination of size, style and color will influence the final result. Pay attention to the different types of elements contained in a text, ranging from the title and subtitle to paragraphs, quotes and more.

Create an order that makes sense for your content, noting the different levels of importance and making the user aware of each element. This will guarantee that your message is transmitted effectively, which has a direct impact on the user’s experience and relationship with the product.

Color: this factor contributes a great deal to the overall hierarchy. Colors have their own hierarchy: black or dark blue, for example, will draw less attention than light tones, such as yellow and pastel colors. Each tone has a different weight in the interface, and their correct use will lead to an ideal hierarchy.

Size: when working with sizes, be careful not to exaggerate, or think that the fact that an element is large is enough to establish a proper hierarchy. Harmony is essential to the composition, so elements are not disproportionate.

Big will always be more noticeable, but it’s not always best. The title, for example, is not more important than the ensuing text, but it should be seen first to guide understanding of the subject in question. 

It is worth noting that larger elements are more likely to attract clicks, so extra care should be taken, especially on mobile devices where screens are smaller and users navigate using their fingers.

Another important principle related to this concept is scale – the size of one object in relation to another. A single object, no matter how big or small, has no scale until it’s compared to another object. This allows us to create balance in a design and focus on the dominant elements. The greater the difference in scale, the stronger the emphasis.

Space and texture: another way to attract attention is to give your content ample breathing space. For example, if substantial negative space is introduced around a button, or the lines of a block of text are spaced out, then these elements will be more readable to the user.

Spacing can be an elegant alternative or an addition to using large font sizes when creating a website. Reducing visual noise will create clearer points of evidence, while white space also makes content more readable.

Texture refers to the total arrangement of space, text, and other details making up a website or app.

Two visual hierarchy standards 

  • “F” format: with this format, the user starts looking for information or keywords at the top, then begins reading normally, forming a horizontal line. The end result looks something like the letter “F” or “E”.
  • “Z” format: you can see this format applied to most web applications. The “Z” format is widely used for interfaces where simplicity is the priority and the call to action is the screen’s main function. For applications with complex content, it may not work as well as the “F” format, but it can help increase your landing page conversion rate.

When planning your website, make a point of looking for patterns and studies available in the market. Each aspect of the visual hierarchy of the elements on a web page or app (i.e. color, location, size, format, structure, font and more) affects how the user behaves, and impacts your business’ results.




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