Hierarchy is the order of importance within a social
group (such as the regiments of an army) or in a body
of text (such as the sections and subsections of a book).
Hierarchical order exists in nearly everything we know,
including the family unit, the workplace, politics, and
religion. Indeed, the ranking of order defines who we
are as a culture.
Hierarchy is expressed through naming systems:
general, colonel, corporal, private, and so on. Hierarchy
is also conveyed visually, through variations in scale,
value, color, spacing, placemet, and other signals.
Like fashion, graphic design cycles through pe-
riods of structure and chaos, ornament and austerity. A
designer's approach to visual hierarchy reflects his
or her personal style, methodology, and training as well
as the zeitgeist of the period. Hierarchy can be simple
or complex, rigorous or loose, flat or highly articulated.
Regardless of approach, hierarchy employs clear marks
of separation to signal a change from one level to
another. As in music, the ability to articulate variation in tone, pitch, and melody in design requires careful delineation.
In interaction design, menus,texts, and images
can be given visual order through placement and con-
sistent styling, but the user often controls the order in
which information is accessed. Unlike a linear book,
interactive spaces feature multiple links ans navigation
options. Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) articulate the
structure of a document separately from its presentation
so that information can be automatically reconfigured for
different output devices, from desktop computer screens
to mobile phones, PDAs, kiosks, and more. A different
visual hierarchy might be used in each instance.
The average computer desktop supports a com-
plex hierarchy of icons, applications, folders, menus,
images, and palettes–empowering users, as never be-
fore, to arrange, access, edit, and order vast amounts
of information–all managed through a flexible hierarchy
controlled and customized by the user.
As technology allows ever greater access to
information, the ability of the designer to distill and
make sense of the data glut gains increasing value.