Even if you’re not a graphic design whiz, you probably have an idea of what hierarchy is. A visual hierarchy is a design structure in which elements are presented according to their importance. Hierarchies are critical in design to help navigate the viewers eyes and convey the correct message. Check out a few practices below for utilizing visual hierarchy in design.

Pick a focal point

What’s the thing you want viewers to see first? It could be a photo, headline, a logo – regardless, it should be your most dominant element. A design with too many competing elements will distract your viewer and detract from your message, so use principles such as negative space, scale, and contrast to give the appropriate weight to your focal point. Sometimes focal points are literally the topmost element, but they can be anywhere on a page or design.

Aim for three levels of text

Many good graphic designs have text with three hierarchical levels.

  • Level-one text is the most prominent. On a business card it could be your company name or your own name. It’s normally the largest typographic element.
  • Level-two text is critical in navigation. It provides a sense of cohesiveness and does not overpower level-one text. On a business card, if your level-one text is your company name, level two is normally your name and job title as well as your most important contact information.
  • Level-three text is everything else. In business card design, it could be the rest of your contact information, your business’s URL, or icons conveying its social presence.

In general, think of the three levels as headline, subheadline and body copy. Use bullet points and negative space, among other elements, to break up text-heavy body copy and aid in readability.

visual hierarchy in design
This design features an effective text hierarchy, where the discount is the most prominent.Edit this template in Shutterstock Editor.

Stick with two or three fonts for your design – simplicity is often most effective. To help the various hierarchies stand out even more, use bold, italics, underlines, and other font differentiators.

Use a grid concept to establish hierarchies

Not sure how to go about building a hierarchy for the images in your design? Try using a grid concept featuring one picture in half of the design and splitting the remaining half equally among the other three photos top to bottom. Alternatively, you could prominently showcase one picture and show the other three in diminishing sizes. The point is to have a reason and purpose for each decision—featuring the pictures in order of how well they communicate your message, for example.

Remember the principles of isolation, scale, and color when playing with photos in hierarchies. A design with just one or two pictures can be more eye-catching than a design with four, five or 10 photos. Check out some visual hierarchy examples here.

Save time with easy-to-use design tools

You don’t need expensive design software to achieve visual hierarchy in design. An easy-to-use tool like Shutterstock Editor has everything you need to create designs with interesting text and gorgeous photos. Simply choose a photo from the Shutterstock collection, or upload your own, then add text, shapes, filters, and additional photos. Use headlines and subheadlines to make hierarchy in the copy, and play with cropping and image dimensions if you’re using a few photos in the design.

shutterstock editor template
Add multiple images to your design in Shutterstock Editor.

Top image by Blazej Lyjak