Visual Hierarchy

To be an effective designer, we have to be able to clearly communicate selected ideas to viewers or we lose their attention.

People see designs in terms of relationships. Seeing similarities and differences or just “seeing” is how we organize our world. Our brains synthesize information by grouping similar visual elements and organizing them into meaningful patterns. Information that is organized with a hierarchy in mind will always be more effective at communicating than information that is not organized.

Visual hierarchy applied to text.

In the above sample illustration, the information in both text blocks is the same. The key to visual hierarchy is how we change the way the reader takes the information in. By applying subheads and pull-out quotes, more visual prominence is given to one element over another, thus making it easier to scan because it is hierarchically organized.


Size easily draws attention because the eye is drawn to the most prominent item on a page. But remember, size must also correlate to importance.


Organizing information based on color can guide the viewer. Color can also be used to convey emotional intensity. Some colors are more soothing than others so used appropriately, color can help evoke emotion.

The wheel of emotion shown above was invented by Robert Plutchik to define a model of human emotions and their relations and combinations. It consists of 8 basic emotions, opposed in pairs, and multiple shades. It is an interesting guide to the power of color and its emotional impact although I would not adhere to it rigidly. Color theories abound.

Grid alignment and white space

Grids create order between elements which helps readability. White space has a functional purpose. It helps guide viewers when used skillfully. Read more on… Visually leading with intent.

Cotter Visual Synergist

How Great Brands Deliver

A 2011 survey ranking the top 100 brands as selected by US consumers conveys the top attributes of those brands that ranked highest.

They each:

offer low prices and high quality;

provide a consistently branded experience;

listen to their customers; and

consistently exceed customer expectations.

It is no surprise that some of the companys selected were USAA, Amazon, Red Lobster, Charles Schwab, Olive  Garden, Netflix, Zappos, Southwest Airlines, Krispy Kreme, Subway and Apple.


Each company:

Has an ingrained customer satisfaction culture. (The customer is always right.)

Has the ability to deliver on their customers’ expectations.

Is highly innovative.

Listens to its customers.

Develops new products.

Strives to charge their customers less.

Does what they say they are going to do.

Has the ability to stand in their customers’ shoes.

Now THAT is thought-provoking. Interestingly, these attributes build great personal brands as well.

Cotter Visual Synergist

Everybody Plays With The Phillies Visual Brand

The Philadelphia Phillies pack the stadium consistently with 45,000 fans and are watched by many more on national syndication. Am I the only one concerned with their visual brand?

Brand Keys, a marketing and research firm, gave the title of “team with the most loyal fans” to the Philadelphia Phillies in their 2011 Brand Keys Sports Loyalty Engagement Index. This index is based on 4 factors: Pure Entertainment, Authenticity, Fan Bonding, and History and Tradition.

So their brand is strong and that is important.

Their visual brand is not. Everybody plays with the Phillies logo, colors and uniform designs.

The inconsistent colors, typefaces and many designs all contribute to visual brand confusion. Typography has nearly as much to do with the identity of the team as the logo itself. But it seems the team has no control over the use of their visual brand elements. Most sports memorabilia vendors take liberties with the designs. Although you can get usage of the official custom typeface from the Phillies website, most opt for a less expensive route.

The team plays in many uniform sets in a multitude of style and color variations. It’s phashion week at the phillies … every week. Why is there no control over the teams visual brand consistency?

But it seems the Philadelphia Phillies do have one consistent element that gains instant recognition everywhere … the logotype. It uses its own custom-designed typeface called scriptwurst which has the a fun feeling – just right for a baseball team. Its colors and stars, craftily used as the dots over the “i”, honor not only its historic city, but the all-star spirit of the team and its brand-loyal fans.

3 Ways To Visually Capture Attention

An informative image is not only well designed; it captures both the feeling of the content and facilitates an understanding of it. You can increase a message’s impact, capture attention and create something memorable through visually communicating by using these 3 simples imagery techniques.

1 Powerful Imagery

Increase the emotional bond with the viewer. Studies show effective use of photographs and drawings of the face create this emotional appeal. People easily identify positively with facial expressions and pick up the emotions they evoke quickly. Use facial gestures that express an intended emotional intensity.


2 Symbolism

Using symbols provides a way to communicate emotional content to represent abstract and sometimes complex ideas. People will associate the visual symbols of their culture with their society’s values and themes which gives it emotional meaning. Almost any concept can be communicated with a symbol.


3 Visual metaphors

You can synthesize two objects or concepts to reveal a new connection or another meaning. It is important that viewers be able to interpret the figurative rather than literal meaning. For a successful metaphor, we need to use recognizable objects and familiar concepts.

Most importantly, seek innovative ideas that communicate the benefits of your business or marketing strategy and resonate with your audience for a particular business goal.

What Happens Above The Fold?

Designers make specific considerations for effective visual communication. It is not only an art, but a science.

What is the ‘above the fold’ concept?

The most eye-catching story or image in a newspaper lies on the most visible part of the paper when it is folded in half and set on a newstand. The obvious goal… to pull in readers quickly and get them to buy. Today, we also call this the ‘virtual fold’.

Where is the ‘virtual fold’?

This depends on:

how a user is browsing the web;

the physical size of the users screen;

the resolution the users screen is set to;

what device the user is viewing on.

There are numerous ways to calculate the fold line. As many as the myriad of online viewing scenarios but, essentially, web design ‘above the fold’ lies where the user begins to scroll.

What lies ‘above the fold’?

Whether you are using web or print communications, virtually, the same principles apply.

The hierarchical list of what you want to communicate for your visitor begins with:


WHO are you?

Positioning Statement

WHAT is your content/subject matter?


HOW do I move around and what information can I find?

And now comes the all important…


Communications is about engaging customers.

How do we engage visitors so they scroll down and move about your website?

As in any design, it is important to put yourself in the shoes of your ideal customer. What are they looking for? Beyond the most important elements listed above, you can begin by making a hierarchical list of what your customer finds most important in relation to your business. List the reasons they are coming to your website. Define the questions new customers ask. Taking into consideration your specific intents will help you with your thought process, but be sure to think like your customer!

The principles of space usage, typography, and other elements of effective hierarchical communication are essential to both print and web design, but the methods of achieving these principles involve different skill sets and considerations for your viewer.

Visually Leading Your Viewers With Intent

How do we get your customers to pay attention to your message?

As designers, we strive to lead viewers attention through your important communications by using …

contrasting size (scale), color, and page position.

large, bold display type and/or graphics to direct them.

varying visual weight, intensity, and color, applying appropriate focus.

We like to make it easy for viewers to read,
so we organize elements using …

a grid system to arrange elements coherently in the space.

multiple columns to help place text and visuals into smaller, more easily taken in bytes of information- such as, text divided into two or three equal columns. Text the full width of the page loses a reader. Optimal reading line width has a standard ratio that is relative to the overall width of the page. A single wider column with a smaller column for pullout quotes and other types of supporting content also works well.

left aligned (unjustified) text to create visual relief while managing the “rag” or sentence breaks.

increase leading (white space between lines) to lighten the look of the page.

White space…. Yes! It has a purpose!

White space helps differentiate the different elements in the space and gives the readers eyes a break. It is a fine balance. Too much material and the page will appear cluttered and viewers eyes are confused as to where to go. Too much white space and the page will appear empty, again confusing our viewers. But it is better to have too much white space than not enough.

We use white space when …

we want two elements to look distinct, using the appropriate white space between them provides focus.

an element needs to be highlighted, increasing the amount of white space around it draws attention.

optically balancing the space – leaving a little more white space at the bottom of a page relative to the top of the page and nice margins on left and right so nothing appears crammed on the page.

we create a wide margin with the purpose of directing the viewer’s attention into the copy or image area.

Our goal with visual communications is to invite the reader into the page and have them leave with your message.

IBM’s New Identity

Excellent April Fools! And I fell for it!


One of the most recognized logotypes in the world is changing… IBM.

A quick look at IBMs logo history.

The agency, Forty, has helped IBM rethink their brand identity. Read the full story here.

Excerpts from Fortys website written by Shaina Rozen, Marketing Director:

Forty says “their first step was to develop an in-depth brand metaphor for the new IBM. They brainstormed new keywords to propel IBM’s verbal and visual strategies, and developed a new tagline to drive home their refreshed brand.”

Brand keywords:

• Youthful: young, fresh, enthusiastic

• Energetic: lively, dynamic, vibrant

• Hip: trendy, popular, sharp

• Accessible: approachable, friendly, pleasant

• Forward-thinking: progressive, bold, pioneering

• Transparent: clear, honest, upfront

New tagline is “Intelligence Redefined”.

“IBM’s purpose, as isolated and refined by Forty, is simply “making people smarter.” This can happen through technology, training, communication, and any other type of knowledge-transfer interaction, all of which fall within IBM’s core competencies as a solution provider.“The visual strategy of using the rainbow pinwheel ”represents the world’s diversity unified into a thing of beauty. IBM is truly a global company, and this sense of diversity is present in everything they do. (Each one of these colors has a specific cultural significance in the countries where IBM envisions doing the most business over the next 100 years.)”

The new logo will be integrated slowly with completion projected by the end of 2011.

The new IBM design follows current trend of using lower case letters. This, combined with softer rounded letterforms, the dot icon of the “I” and a brighter color palette offers a more relevant, meaningful, contemporary, friendly and pleasing look. Ones eye and mind finishes the cut off ascender on the letter “b”.

It is well thought out, appropriate, timeless and obviously created by top level professional brand designers.

This is a pretty time-consuming April Fools! Hats off to Forty. This serves as an ingenious self promotion!

Color is perceived on three levels and they work together!

Physiological/subliminal: how our bodies reflexively respond to color; our subliminal associations of color based on our first interactions with color in nature reside in our collective unconscious.

Cultural: the conventions of color usage throughout time in specific cultures.


Marketing context: i.e., green in “warm beverages” means decaf … or in sodas it can be a flavor cue for lemon-lime.

Red is the most extroverted color in the spectrum, representing vitality, life and energy. People want to eat and drink more in the presence of red (i.e., Campbell’s Soup is a good example). In American culture, and in an American marketing context, red represents strength and leadership. The perceptual set of “red brands” includes: Target, Coca-Cola, Marlboro, Band-Aid, and Jell-O, market leaders all and “representatives” of classic, mainstream Americana.

Red IS the color to “own” or to use as an umbrella ‘owning color’ strategy because of its status as the most dominant color of all. It’s always a good idea for a brand to try to “own” a color in people’s minds (e.g. Immediate consumer associations of a color with the brand … i.e., Kodak and yellow, Duracell and copper/black) since people remember color first in the hierarchy of visual memory.

Owning a color affords instant recognition and distinction by customers in our highly saturated, complex and competitive brand landscape.

Building Brand, Delivering Happiness

I just finished reading Delivering Happiness by Tony Hseith, CEO,, Inc.

This IS a business book.

The first half of the book is a great story on who Tony is and how Zappos came to be. His genius is awe-inspiring and to be greatly admired. At such a young age, he offers many life-living nuggets which makes it not only a business book, but a life skills book as well.

But, most importantly, this book is about branding. Yes. It is about delivering happiness – through your company brand AND through living your life.

The book has a number of levels and many revelations. The author speaks of building a Tribe. He realized that he felt the happiest when he was in his “Tribe” where he gets a sense of love and belonging. Once he realized that Tribes are key, his intent became to build a Tribe with Zappos. Building a tribe (or a culture) is building a brand. Brand advocates are those who work there and those who buy there. They all become one “Zappos people” with the unified goal of delivering happiness to everyone. They all become brand ambassadors within the organization and in the outside world.

Branding is no longer a marketing or a PR function, but a natural organic process which grows from the culture. Amazing! Inside and outside of the business: Live it. Be it. Think it. A unified goal. The author has become a master at how and why we humans do what we do, which is key to building a brand that humans embrace.

Zappos is one of those companys that we should model for brand building behavior.

The author says, “It is really important to have core values that can be committed to. And if you’re willing to hire and fire based on them, you’re well on your way to building a company culture that is in line with the brand you want to build.”

For me, this brings a surprisingly refreshing approach to branding. Enjoy! And let me know what you think!

Delivering Happiness

Best Design Practices

JCPenney’s recently launched new logo uses the lowercase letters “jcp” inside their signature box.

JCPenney says the “fresh, bold design is the most meaningful update to the Company’s logo in 40 years.” “We’ve made significant progress transforming our Company over the last several years by infusing great style into our assortments, delivering world-class customer service, and introducing new and innovative retail technologies that have made JCPenney a retail leader in the digital age,” said Chairman-CEO Mike Ullman. “Our new logo reflects the modern retailer we’ve become while continuing to honor our rich legacy.”

JCP says its new logo is well vetted and should not create the furvor the GAP logo did (which required some significant backpedaling). JCP accepted more than 200 redesigned logo submissions from company employees, design agencies and University of Cincinnati and Rhode Island School of Design Art Program students. The winning design was created by a University of Cincinnati graphic design student.

The logo was introduced in T.V. ads during the Academy Awards. I noticed the new logo right away but not necessarily for a good reason. I am a purist when it comes to graphic design, which is why it glaringly jumped out at me. There it was in all its glory in front of millions of people. The logo, run vertically, without the box (shown on the left below).

We read from top to bottom, so when type runs vertically it should be readable from the top down. It is as simple as that! When you see type running vertically and it runs bottom to top, it is wrong. I realize this is done frequently but it doesn’t mean it is correct.

Why would such a significant consumer brand not know “best design practices”? Why aren’t design schools teaching “best design practices” and the better question is, why don’t design agencies know this? Let’s not lose sight of these details. They convey a level of visual design professionalism and a respect for the viewing audience. Do a 180!