Typographic Hierarchies

Simply defined, the concept of typographic hierarchies refers to the visual organization of content in terms of their relative importance. In other words, the manner in which we organize the text, the headers, the subheaders, the columns, the paragraphs, the callouts, and others on the page or space signify their importance.

That sounds easy enough, right? Yes, it does. The problem is that visually accomplishing this is more challenging than it sounds, especially for those unfamiliar with the nuances of typography. Everything in typography behaves like a domino effect causing a chain reaction of changes by the designer. That is why when a client asks for a “small change,” it is never small and never linear. Typography is symbiotic. Each element contributes to the other, even in a very small way.

These two words: typographic and hierarchies are not familiar concepts to those outside our field. In fact, even in the art and design field, fellow artists do not necessarily understand typographic hierarchy. The term typographic refers to matters related to typography: type choice, sizes, weights, how far or close we set the letters, and others. The term hierarchy refers to levels of priority or importance: what comes first, second, and third. Thus, when these two terms are put together, we mean to arrange content in levels of importance with the intention of communicating to the reader.

Choosing typefaces, arranging content in terms of visual importance, and organizing elements (title, subtitles, body copy, images, space, and so on) on the page evoke responses from the reader. When things are in competition on a page, we might feel confused. We all have a sense of it, and we can even recall moments of disgust when we see a printed note with bloody type or a website in which the typography is all jumbled up. However, learning to use typography is elusive. It is a matter of constant practice and honing visual acumen.

While it is true that the advent of the computer to our field has expedited the design and printing process, it is also true that typographic proportions do not look the same when looking at things online versus printing. The relationship between the reader and their monitor differs from the relationship between the reader and anything printed, whether hand-held or seen at a distance.

To provide an example, let me share my experience with typography. Before becoming a designer, I graduated with a BA in Art Education. I understood color, research, composition, contrast, drawing, images, sketching, painting, and so on. When I went back to school to study design and specifically graphic design, I was lost.

My biggest challenge was that I could not see the letters as something other than the semantic symbols of language. Questions constantly flooded my mind. For instance, “What do you mean that the letters have a grid? What do you mean I am doing too much? And what is too much? How is this too big?” The questions were endless and excruciating. My beginner’s typography was, to put it mildly, a prime example of what not to do. I did not know any better, but I also did not understand any better.

My “aha” moment came when another instructor explained to me that typography was like auditioning for a part in a play that I wanted really badly. She suggested that I enunciate the words as if I was playing in the theater. Mind you, I had no experience in theater whatsoever but somehow, the idea resonated with me. It was then that I realized, in a very experiential way, that typography was the spoken language in visual form.

That, somehow, the letters, words, titles, typeface choices, size, weight, color, spacing — all conspired together to emanate a visual language. The page was the stage. The letters, words, titles, paragraphs, and so on were performers on that stage. Another instructor used to say that the typographic hierarchy was like a ballet company where only one was the prima ballerina, and everything else bowed to her. Having a cultural background where music and dance were vital, I started to get the idea.

After I made it into graduate school, my exploration of typography intensified, leading to my thesis work. My graduate thesis combined two things that were special to me: dance, specifically ballroom dancing, and my newfound love for typography. To develop a body of work for my thesis, I used one of my classes’ undergraduate projects — Typographic Hierarchies. Since then, I have been teaching typography and hierarchy using this project.

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