Visual Hierarchy — How to show your story.

January 6, 2021
7 min read
“Information anxiety... happens when information doesn't tell us what we want or need to know.”
— Richard Saul Wurman

You can’t judge a book by its cover. Everyone knows this. Yet everyone does.  The design of those covers drives the $14 billion publishing industry.¹ The cover is the lure, the billboard, the hook, designed to get the buyer’s attention.

It’s not just books that we judge. You name it, we judge it. Even in the supposedly hyper-rational business world, there’s a lot of judging going on, judging people — talent reviews, presentations, or sales pitches. And judging products — aesthetics, packaging, or potential usefulness.

The very human act of decision making is immensely complex and emotionally driven. What we decide is more about how we feel than what we think.² And stories shape how we feel.³

Making a story visual, allowing people to see it is, therefore, a vital skill.

Go visual.

In the telling of a story, there’s a good, better, best approach. Conveying that information in the talk-track is good. Better is showing it as text. Best of all is visual. Done well, as the adage goes, “the picture is worth a thousand words.” But you can go one better.

There’s a best of all — blending the words and pictures to create a powerful visual. It’s what psychologists call “dual coding theory”.⁴ It’s the idea that hearing an explanation of something and seeing it has a more profound effect on our understanding, recall, and subsequent skill than hearing it or seeing it alone.

Pond story.

To demonstrate the power of visuals, travel (at least mentally) to a lake in Derbyshire, England. Imagine, if you will, a sunny summer’s day. In front of you, at Harper Hill in the Peak District, is a shimmering azure lake. It’s inviting. So much so, in local lore, it’s called the blue lagoon.

But enter at your peril. The lagoon is a water-filled disused quarry. Lurking below the surface of the water — old cars, rubbish, and dead animals. Worse still are the caustic chemicals. The water is heavily alkaline, a point below bleach — ideal for lime burns, skin irritation, and stomach problems.

The local council put up stern warning signs:

The warning did not work. People ignored the text and swam in the lagoon.

In the end, the solution was simple and visual. The council changed the color of the lagoon, dyeing it black.⁵

Information architecture basics.

In telling a story, understand you are conveying information. To apply visuals to that story, you have to grasp the basics of information architecture.

Information architecture is the organization, structure, and labeling of content in an effective and useful way. Information architecture helps users understand how pieces fit together as part of a larger picture or how items relate to one another within a system.⁶

We understand information architecture through a visual hierarchy.

Understanding visual hierarchy.

Visual hierarchy is the arrangement of elements to show their order of importance. Any designed object has a visual hierarchy. What you see and understand first, second, third, and so on.

An easy way to understand visual hierarchy is to judge a book by its cover.

Here’s a book cover. What do you see?

From a distance, you will start to gather information.

You will not be able to read the title.

But you can see it is a reddish-colored book.

From its size and proportion (compared to other books), you may begin to guess the type of book.


As you get closer...

You will be able to read the title. This in itself — essentially the headline — conveys a lot of information.

“The Air Raid Killer” — it’s unlikely to be a textbook, or a children’s book, more likely a novel.

Even to non-designers, the type gives clues. This one is reminiscent of “Keep calm and carry on” posters, circa WWII.


And closer still...

You see secondary information. The words “A Novel” confirm that it is a novel.

You read the author’s name.

The background image is clearer;  you see an air raid, a burning building, and WWII era bombers’ silhouettes.

All this detail rounds out the visual hierarchy and allows you to judge a book by its cover.

It’s visual hierarchy in action.


Know where you want the eye to go.

Visual design, in its many forms — graphic design, communications design, information design —  is a skill. It takes years to learn and a lifetime to master. There are no quick fixes to this, but everyone can improve whether you went to art school or accounting school.

Building a visual hierarchy and focusing your audience’s eyes is how a non-designer should design slides and presentations. Here are six “how-to’s” to help you do that.

Use movement and builds.

First, use movement and builds. When something moves, we look at it. Even if it’s in our peripheral vision, it’s an evolutionary thing. So a build on a slide, with a new element coming in, screams, “look at me.” A moving object will attract the eye. The order in which things move will give your audience a natural sense of priority and hierarchy.

Focus with color.

The next best, in order of ‘look at me’ attraction, is color. But you have to use it well. Too much is overwhelming. An elaborate, coded color scheme will just as easily confuse as clarify. I have a couple of rules about color:

  • Don’t use too much color. Otherwise, it’s wasted. For best results, use one color on a slide or visual that is predominantly black, white, and gray. Then you use color to say ‘look at me’ — to highlight the element you want the eye drawn to.
  • Stick within your brand palette. Hopefully, some designer somewhere actually thought about it.
  • Pick high contrast colors. Something that stands out. If you are using color to say ‘look at me’ — a dull, muted color is not your friend.
  • Avoid reds and greens if you can. There are two reasons here. They are difficult to distinguish for the color-blind. The other difficulty is cultural connotations. At least in the western world, red is associated with ‘bad,’ ‘stop,’ and ‘angry.’ Green is associated with ‘good,’ ‘go,’ and ‘growth.’ Using red to highlight something you think is positive sends a mixed message. You’re saying it’s good. The color says ‘bad’ or ‘stop.’

Line things up.

Before you go out, you might check how you look in a mirror. Adjust a tie or some buttons or straighten a curl. You are neatening things up and making them look presentable. Lining stuff up on your slides is essential too. There are two reasons to do this.

  • If it doesn’t line up, or your slide breaks hidden margins, your slide (and by inference, you) look like an unmade bed.
  • But what lines up with what – we tend to assume meaning. For instance, you might think that this block here is the header or subhead for this block.

Think about position.

Position on the page implies visual hierarchy. Loosely, something lower on the page is less important than something at the top. Something to the right is less important than something on the left. That’s why a good headline is so important.

You will sometimes see a bizarre habit of a “kickplate” on a slide. The kickplate is usually at the bottom right — a position of least importance. What’s on the kickplate is the bottom line — the takeaway. Don’t do this. Put that in your headline.

For a visually dominant slide, use the rule of thirds. You may recognize the rule of thirds — if you’re a photographer. It shows you where we tend to focus on a visual, where prominent information should be. That is, in one of the thirds, or on or near the focal points.

For a more text-heavy slide, think about how our eyes track when we read a page. We’re a left to right culture, so if you follow eye gaze, we tend to view things in a Z pattern. We look left to right on websites and slides, then across and down, left to right again. Or sometimes an F pattern.

Be careful with type.

Here’s an easy one. You can play with type. As with color, don’t try too hard.

Use larger type and bolder type for content at the top levels of your information hierarchy.

Use subtler type forms, italics, and underlining to call attention to elements in your hierarchy’s middle order.

If you are not a designer, avoid substituting fonts. Stick with one, or at most two fonts, and use this type of treatment consistently from slide to slide.

Use space.

We have saved the most difficult for last. Space. The final frontier... for both Star Trek and good PowerPoint. Your boss or someone has probably said at some point, “put it all on one slide.”, If they put thought into their statement, their ambition  was to get your point across as simply as possible. To judiciously edit so that people get just what they need. That’s if they were thinking. It’s just as likely they weren’t, and the “one slide” comment was a trickle-down, knee-jerk rule that has seeped into the culture. It’s thoughtless and misguided.

In order  to get your point across, to have your audience understand, engage with, and remember your content. Here, white space is your friend. It’s not virgin territory screaming, “fill me  with more detail.” It’s breathing room for your content.

Use white space. Even if you apply all these other rules, you take away from them by crowding the slide. Take out anything you don’t need on the slide.

Look and learn.

With its foundation of information architecture and Gestalt Theory, visual hierarchy is all around us: books, street signs, packaging, and PowerPoint slides. You will learn just as much and improve your skills in this area through observation as practice. Pay attention to where your eye goes and how you judge a book by its cover

Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads Learning Design and Product development across fassforward’s range of services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, Culture, Decision-making, Information design, Storytelling, and Customer Experience. He is also a contributor to Forbes Business Council.

Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic. Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.

¹ Rowe, Adam. “The Publishing Industry Grew Nearly 2% Overall In 2019.” Forbes.
² Schwarz, Norbert. "Emotion, cognition, and decision making." Cognition & Emotion 14.4 (2000): 433-440.
³ Shiller, Robert J. Narrative economics: How stories go viral and drive major economic events. Princeton University Press, 2020. pp.79-83.
⁴ Mayer, Richard E., and Valerie K. Sims. "For whom is a picture worth a thousand words? Extensions of a dual-coding theory of multimedia learning." Journal of educational psychology 86.3 (1994): 389.
⁵ "Toxic Derbyshire ‘Blue Lagoon’ Dyed Black.” BBC News, 10 June 2013.
⁶ Definition adapted from “Information Architecture Basics | Usability.Gov.” Improving the User Experience, 8 Oct. 2013.
⁷ The images have been visually manipulated to give you the sense of approaching the book from a distance.

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