In this blog post I’m going to introduce hierarchy as a principle of design and explain how to use it to improve the design of your presentations.
In Universal Principles of Design (a must-read book), the authors explain that hierarchical organisation is the easiest way to visualise and understand complexity. They also suggest that increasing the visibility of hierarchical relationships within a design is one of the best ways to improve the understanding of the design itself.
An application of this principle in presentations is the use of hierarchy within text.
To explain this concept I’m going to use Obama’s 2014 State of the Union Speech as an example. It’s interesting because on that occasion Obama chose to amplify his speech with a visual support. (They weren't slides though—it was more like a document).
Let's take the page below as an example. You can see that the typeface follows a precise hierarchy:
- Bold title in uppercase
- Font size of the title larger than that of the subtitle (which is not bold and not in uppercase)
- The text of the source, at the bottom right, is even smaller
When Congress members see such a page, their attention goes to the title first (which is the main message) and then to the rest. From a hierarchical perspective, the title is more important than the subtitle, which in turn is more important than the source. Those who designed this page have “increased the visibility of the hierarchical relationships within the design.”
An easy way to achieve this result is to use a font family, which is a set of several fonts that are all part of the same typeface and that share the same design elements. For example, within the Helvetica family you can choose different fonts: regular, light, bold, etc.
In the sample slide below I used Gill Sans which is a professional and fresh typeface. Like Helvetica, Gill Sans is not just a font, but a font family. As you can see, I wrote the title in bold, the data in the graph in Gill Sans Regular and the source with a lighter version. This way, you can still keep a sense of uniformity within a slide (and throughout different slides) by using the same typeface while also establishing a level of priority (hierarchy) among the various text elements.
If you want to learn more about how to make better presentations, download my report Top 7 Mistakes People Make When Creating Business Presentations.