What is Hierarchy?

By their very nature, signs and other visual communications in the built environment are designed to deliver essential information quickly, efficiently, and at the point where it is needed. Not all information on a given sign is equal in importance, and messages in some locations are more important than others. Therefore, designers must create a hierarchy that ensures the most important content is the most prominent.

Based on their location relative to the users’ journey, information on signs is ranked primary, secondary, or tertiary. Generally speaking, sign hierarchy principles dictate that the more important the information, the higher its visibility should be—dictated by the size of the sign, the location and height of the sign, and the size of the graphics (fonts and symbols) on the sign. User-focused research has determined how font size and design (i.e., serif versus sans-serif, character weight, letter spacing, etc.) affects sign legibility at various viewing distances, and designers follow these legibility and hierarchy guidelines.

Using an airport wayfinding system as an example, many destinations must appear on airport signs, and some are more important than others. More people will be looking for check-in, gates, and baggage claim (primary destinations) than the airport administrative offices (tertiary destination). So in the information hierarchy, primary destinations should appear more prominently. Especially for directional signs, which frequently list multiple destinations, it’s critical that the most important information is seen first. With signs that contain non-directional information, the same principle holds true: It would be confusing to airport users if the janitor’s closet was identified as prominently as the gates.

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