When designing presentations it can be easy to get swallowed up by the desire to exercise that design trick you’ve been dying to use, or to use white space in a quirky designer-y way; it is, after all, part of the nature of a designer to create interesting, beautiful things. What can be tricky, however, is to keep in mind how a person might absorb the information onscreen.

Sexy slides might impress your audience, but if they’re not learning anything from them, the slides are pretty useless. The most useful thing you can do as a designer is to reinforce the presenter, designing with people in mind, by organising and introducing information in such a way that you lead the audience on a journey through the slide that gives them all the information they need in manageable, ordered steps. Failing to do so can lead to missed or misinterpreted information. Disaster.

Visual hierarchy is the organization and prioritization of content as a means to communicate a message. When building slides it’s down to you to build the path that the audience will tread. You can do this by considering how people absorb information; western cultures, for example, read left to right and will often look to the top left as a starting point when reading information. Bolding sections or adding colour can show importance if used correctly, and will give the audience a point at which to begin reading. Take a look at the visual below:

hierarcy in presentations

Imagine each of these circles is a piece of information on a slide. Which piece of information did you look at first? Which is most important? Did you look top-left as if continuing reading, did you look to the centre, or did your eyes move constantly across the information? Such an effect could be frustrating and highly unhelpful to an audience, which would soon lose interest if they struggled to take in any information. Now, take a look at the example below:

hierarcy in presentations

Where were your eyes drawn? Chances are, you looked at the green circle first or noticed its prominence, at least. By making this shape stand out you’ve given a visual clue as to the importance of this information, or to a starting point from which to move through the slide. The grid formation also helps create harmony and order, which allows the audience to take in the information in an easier, logical method.

When dealing with text similar principles apply. Take the two slide examples below:

hierarcy in presentations

hierarcy in presentations

The first example combines different fonts, colours, formatting, and no logical reading order. Slide two, on the other hand, sets out a clear heading by using a larger, bold font. Sub-points and sub-sub-points are made clear with smaller fonts and an indentation from the title. Humans’ brains are wired to make sense of everything we see by finding order and pattern (our desire to find such meaning in our surroundings is why we see clouds in the shape of animals, or portraits of Elvis in our toast). A person’s brain would spend so long trying to determine the relationships and order between the information in slide 1 that they wouldn’t take much, if any, information in. By designing slides to present information clearly, an audience needn’t divert brainpower away from absorbing a presentation’s message. Understanding that you can influence how an audience reads a slide is great, but how do you do it? Let me introduce you to a few basic tools to help you design hierarchically:

Your hierarchical toolbox:

Size

hierarcy in presentations

Size is probably the easiest and simplest factor in determining hierarchy. A viewer’s eye is also likely to be drawn to bigger elements on a slide first, which gives you the freedom to arrange elements on a slide away from a traditional ‘title-top-left’ structure. Bear in mind that bigger objects demand more attention, so try to design with the idea that ‘bigger = more important’.

Colour

As we’ve already seen, adding colour can create importance and contrast between elements on a slide. Colour intensity or shade can give an idea of how important certain elements are:

hierarcy in presentations

Colour can also create unity throughout a presentation, both in terms of visual identity (which makes a presentation easier for an audience to follow), and by recalling themes or key ideas. For example, if you were designing a slide deck about worldwide food distribution you could use a bright blue for elements referring to overseas transit.

hierarcy in presentations

Using the same colour for related information later in the slide allows the audience to understand the nature of the information before reading the content which can prepare the brain to make connections and reinforce ideas previously learned.

Proximity

Colour isn’t the only tool you can use to show relationships within your presentation. An audience reads how elements are placed within space, and in building your slides you can design sections and sub-sections by visually grouping images, text or icons within the space. Placing elements within close proximity tells the audience that they are related, while separation creates negative space that indicates they are not.

hierarcy in presentations

How tightly you group elements or groups, and how far you spread them is a handy skill to visually show relevance, links and association.

Repetition

Numerous elements of similar style, position, and scale create a harmony and a rhythm that an audience will acknowledge and will understand to be a closely linking relationship. Repetition not only makes slide navigation easier for an audience, but also allows you to visually group or distinguish elements.

hierarcy in presentations

Breaking repetition signifies a difference between elements and the audience can safely assume a uniqueness about the new elements.

So there we have four hierarchical tools: size, colour, proximity, and repetition. Each has their merits within a presentation. With these little tools we can design slides that make a little more sense; slides that lead the audience in a logical order and inform them effectively. For more minimalist design expertise, read this blog post on restricting your design elements to make your design cleaner and easier to understand.

Getting hierarchy right in infographics is also really important. Have a look at some of the experts who have done it well on Information is Beautiful.

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Written by

Shay O’Donnell

Senior design consultant

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