Visual Hierarchy — How to show your story.

“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?⁷

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 b

lack, 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.