Put a Whole in Your Hierarchy

I’ve been making posters for my local pub, some good ones, some not so good. Unlike a web page which lives in the confines of a browser with little else in visual competition, a poster has to fight for attention. So what looks solid on screen can fail terribly in the context of a cluttered wall full of competing posters, announcements, and a drunk guy leaning his drunk away. With so much distraction, it’s difficult to catch the viewer’s eye and start a conversation.

Through my failed attempts, I’ve learned there two parts to attracting and communicating with the viewer. First is choosing the hierarchy of information. Second is turning that hierarchy into a story, of sorts, that leads the viewer through the full message.

Hierarchy isn’t just placing the event or artist name in huge type with all the other information cascading below. It also includes the idea that encapsulates the whole message. The idea always has the most importance, whether the designer has given much thought to it or not. Color and font choices, that’s the idea. Illustration style, that’s the idea. Visual metaphor, that’s the idea. For a poster, the idea is an introduction to begin a conversation with the viewer—who just may be across the room. The rest of the information—event, date, cost, etc.—should flow out the idea. It’s important to see the design as a whole thing, not separate bits stuck together. Granted, sometimes it’s best to forgo the fancy to get the message out there clear and loud:

DANGER!

But imagine if all posters looked like this? Every message would be lost in sea of uppercase and sans-serif. The goal is figure out a way to get the message in front of the viewer by getting the viewer in front of the message. We want to bring the viewer in to tell him or her the whole story.

Eat Me Poster

This one turned out pretty well and was a success by drawing attention to the event (and bringing in diners). I could have gone with “Valentines Day Dinner for Two” in big type, added a cupid or two and called it day. I doubt, though, it would have risen above the din of competing posters.

That’s where turning the hierarchy into story comes in.

The EAT ME joke on the candy may be a bit crass, but it grabs the viewer’s attention while the copy reinforces what the poster is actually about, eating (dinner). Having EAT ME as only type wouldn’t have same Valentines vibe or context—important since it’s not just any other night to grab a bite with a partner. Through the word choice and candy image, there’s a reveal in the information where one piece leads to the next, just like a story. I doubt many of the viewers bothered to think about the poster this much, nor should they, but subconsciously I believe that’s what was happening.

While a browser and a bar wall behave differently, a web page still has its competition, a simple click to the rest of the internet, which I heard is pretty big. Getting the viewer in front of the message (attracting through the idea) to get the message in front of the viewer (tell the story) translates just as well to the web. Granted, there’s less chance of a spilled White Russian ruining the design

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