How The Eye Sees: 5 Tips For Understanding Visual Hierarchy

Composition of eye icon and arrow bursts to illustrate How The Eye Sees 5 Tips For Understanding Visual Hierarchy

As technology advances so, too, does our understanding of how we interact with it.

Behind any successful product launch, there’s almost certainly a high level of research and development behind it. With web design, that fact is no different. So much of the design process can boil down to human psychology and how we process information.

Visual hierarchy is the placement and ordering of design elements in such a way as to convey their importance. This plays a massive role in how visitors to your site interact with it and can greatly affect sales, lead generation, or brand awareness.

Visual hierarchy is made up of several key elements

  • Size – Larger elements draw more attention and are easily noticed. Elements such as headers or hero images are some of the first things a user will see when visiting your site.
  • Contrast – The eye is naturally attracted to more contrasting colors (e.g., blue and orange) than colors that are similar (e.g., red and orange).
  • Color – Bright colors will draw more attention, and certain colors also convey emotion.
  • Alignment – Placement of elements conveys a level of importance and helps guide the visitor through your site to other elements.
  • Repetition – Things that repeat often suggest related content.
  • Proximity – Much like repetition, the proximity of certain design elements to one another also suggests a relationship between the two.
  • White Space – Another element of contrast, a large amount of white space around a block of text or image will draw users in more.
  • Texture and Style – Fonts, shadows, curves, and textures all play a role in how we process information.

So how does this all come into play? Here is an example of these elements at play.

Naturally, your eyes are drawn to the largest portion of text first. But as you can see, you may not follow the natural progression of text as you would when reading a book.

That’s because your brain is taking in and processing information all at once — and we’re easily distracted.

Visual hierarchy plays a key role in ensuring the visitor remains engaged and follows the logical flow of elements within the website.

1) You tell the user where to start

Creating a strong focal point at the beginning of your website creates a starting point for the viewer. The use of a large image or headline that stands out immediately draws attention and creates a visitor’s first impression.

From a psychological standpoint, viewers will naturally look at content in the top left first and then use one of two patterns to scan your site. The “F” and “Z” patterns are generally accepted as the two most common natural flows the human eye takes when viewing a webpage. However this isn’t always the case, and we as humans don’t all follow the same patterns. Thus, it’s important that elements are placed in a way that not only makes sense logically but also helps guide the user down the page.

2) Imagery is equally important

Images often speak louder than words. Visitors to your site will almost certainly scan for images before text.

Using crisp, sharp images that help convey your site’s message can make a drastic difference in how visitors interact with your site.

Small or fuzzy images will likely be ignored, which can potentially throw off the natural flow of the website.

Using high-quality images is crucial.

Not only are high-quality images important, the context of proximity of the image with text plays a big factor in how we process information.

An image of someone sitting down at a sporting event next to a block of text that’s attempting to sell tickets might be less effective than an image of a fan cheering in a crowd.

3) Take advantage of white space

White space is the negative space around text and images. It plays a critical role in how visitors perceive the importance of elements and the value of products.

It also helps direct attention. The image to the right actually brings in several elements of visual hierarchy, including size, contrast, proximity and, of course, white space. The white space allows for a distraction-free message, and portrays a sense of elegance and modernism.

When combined with other elements the image is able to speak much louder than words with an impactful statement that reads as sleek, slim, high-quality, and classy. White space can be a highly effective tool for delivering a message or feeling in a simple way when used correctly.

4) Color is key

Color is a very useful tool when looking at ways to grab attention and convey a message or idea. Bright images, headlines, or fonts will not only grab attention but convey emotion or feeling.

Picking colors that align with your message is important. A hero element with a red “Sale” header conveys urgency and excitement whereas a blue “Enjoy Yourself” header may convey the idea of a relaxing vacation or calmness.

5) Don’t forget about mobile

The general guidelines of visual hierarchy apply for both desktop and mobile — with one crucial difference. Inherently, phone screens are smaller, and every element viewed on a mobile device will play a crucial role in guiding the user through the website even moreso than on laptops or desktops.

Because the user is viewing nearly all the elements with a single look rather than having to scan, elements like a “Call to Action” or “Buy” button should stand out more, and there should be a clear and direct flow to ultimately drive users to those endpoints.

Another major factor to consider is placement of those elements in relation to the user’s thumb. Since the majority of the navigation will be done using the thumb, easy-to-access placement can make all the difference in user interaction.

So much goes into designing and developing an impactful and successful website, and visual hierarchy plays a major role in that success. Paying attention to how users interact with your website and its content can be all the difference between a sale or form submission and a quick exit.

Taking the time to thoroughly plan out the content of your website and keeping these key elements in mind will undoubtedly help in the overall experience of your website.