The more I learn about design, the more I become convinced that effective design is comprised of ethical content hierarchy. I believe successful design must utilize clear content hierarchy that provides honest and transparent communication in the way people read and interpret information. By doing this, we can allow people to intake and process information as they please. I like to think of it as kindness to the eyes.
Some good and bad hierarchy examples in signage. It should be clear which one is which.
Visual hierarchy: the good, the bad, and the ugly
Visual cues created by clear contrast lay a strong foundation for ethical hierarchy. These include different font weights, content sizes, positioning, and color usage. Information should have a layered approach where the most important details are presented as the star of the show , followed by the second most important bits of information with a little less pizazz, and so on. Humans can only process so much information at a time, and this layering allows people to sift through large quantities of information in order to find what they're looking for quickly and effectively.
A crucial part of ethical hierarchy is assessing and refining if messages aren't clear, or worse, communicating unintended messages. Design and language have great power and this power can sometimes be used to trick, guilt, and manipulate people. User interface elements like type and hierarchy intentionally used to mislead people are known as dark patterns. A funny but overwhelmingly infuriating Reddit thread demonstrates this—AssholeDesign.
It pains me to see examples on r/assholedesign like a parking lot sign with giant letters "$4 PARKING!!" with the tiniest text underneath reading "every 15 minutes" (this was an actual post). Can you imagine how ticked off you'd be if you drove all the way up to the sign, relieved you finally found a parking option within your budget, only to find out you had been deceived when you got close enough to read? Or worse, you get smacked with an unexpected hefty fee when trying to exit the lot? This deception was created from unethical design.
Because of the power of hierarchy, designers carry a great burden. We must be utterly aware of user needs and always check to make sure what we're communicating is honest and true. A design may have good intentions, but is executed in a way that doesn't serve people equitably. We must talk to people, empathize, and constantly ask for feedback on how our work is perceived. We must then make adjustments if it's being interpreted differently than we anticipated.
You can tell by the way I use my walk
While there are definitely instances where design is used to mislead, there are tons of examples of hierarchy being used for good. I love how Michael Bierut's team at Pentagram used hierarchy in the WalkNYC wayfinding system. The most important information—where you are currently— is the biggest type on the kiosk. It's also in the top left corner, which makes sense in a country whose official language reads top left to right. The next sets of information trickle down in visual emphasis: directions and subway lines, to neighborhoods, to landmarks, to finally, street names. Most people will want to know where they are, but not everyone will need to know the surrounding streets, hence the smaller text size. People are invited in through a layered approach, which is liberating and oh-so-refreshing. Information is clear, accurate, and prioritized according to user needs. My verdict: ethical hierarchy.
Spotify also provides a wonderful demonstration of what I consider ethical hierarchy. In their 2019 campaign they used clear visual cues—large type sizes and contrasting colors—to prioritize the message (which is so fun!). This clear visual hierarchy allows viewers to take their time to intake information as they please, again through a layered approach. The purpose of the campaign is to build brand awareness, and it doesn't do so by manipulation or deceit. People are then able to later research Spotify if they are interested in learning more and/or purchasing. They will ultimately be able to make their own informed decision on whether they want to make the purchase, which is what it's all about. My verdict: ethical hierarchy.
With great power comes great responsibility
The way we as designers present information directly affects how people intake and interpret the world around us. Because of this great responsibility, we must be honest and ethical about how we use tools like hierarchy. We must make sure to be inclusive from the beginning of our processes, and continually ask questions to make sure people are being guided in an ethical way. People must be given fair opportunities to make their own choices, which can and should be encouraged through design.