The Oxford English Dictionary defines hierarchy as a ranking system ordered according to status or authority. A hierarchy often refers to the echelons of a hierarchical system such as The Church, Government or the Army. These institutions denote relative importance through the naming of ranks or positions. Hierarchy is a value system and dependent on who is making the judgement and what the criteria is. The creation of a hierarchy within information is a fundamental method of organising and imparting data. It is the H within the LATCH theory.
Typography has a dual purpose, on the one hand it attracts attention through the impact of its dynamic form, on the other it must impart critical information with clarity. Information designers analyse the text and investigate the means of articulating the information, assigning relative importance through typographic techniques. The intention of performing such a task is to encourage people to read information in a pre-conceived order. Emphasis is given through contrast in: size, weight, position and colour of type (including tints). The use of capitals, small capitals and italics are often used to denote specific meaning. Use of typographic devices such as rules or reversing type white out of a solid colour can also be considered. Care needs to be taken however, as too many shifts in emphasis will defeat the original purpose of communicating information with clarity. Typefaces such as Univers and Helvetica, which have a systematised range of weights and simplicity of form, are particularly suitable for gaining emphasis and imparting information effectively. The sequence in which information is organised influences hierarchy. The medium of print lends itself to linear narratives and commonly employs covers, contents pages, section dividers and chapters to guide us through sequential information. The ability to change the size, weight, colour and percentage tint of a typeface allows designers to create implied depth. The overlapping of type implies one thing is in front of another and denotes relative importance ie the top layer exerts dominance over the bottom layer. The important concept to be grasped is that a hierarchy is gained through contrast. Slight shifts in contrast are less dramatic than greater shifts in emphasis for example the difference between 9-point type and 10-point type will be less detectable to the human eye than 9-point and 18-point. Changes in weight should also be distinct. The design work of 8vo demonstrates how the use of one typeface such as Unica, Helvetica or Futura can be used to create successful hierarchies using dramatic but controlled changes in weight and size.
Website architecture, information hierarchy and navigation
Information hierarchy within websites is often determined by the structure of the site. Navigation is key to the user’s understanding of their location within the hierarchy. Menus, site maps, navigation panels and digital breadcrumb trails all demonstrate the information hierarchy. Most websites are a series of pages connected by hyperlinks within a network. The considered structuring of information into categories and hierarchies forms the information architecture. The designer considers how this information will be accessed and in what order. Offering limitless and random choice can be a disorientating and frustrating experience. A tree structure is often adopted to organise information into a clear hierarchy. Tree structures are composed of key navigational pages known as parent pages with a distinct series of descendant pages. A combination of a tree structure with the looser structure of a network affords the viewer a choice in establishing their own information needs and sense of hierarchy. Html text formatting is more limited than print and therefore the amount and complexity of text-based information needs to be carefully considered in order to maintain clear typographic hierarchies on individual pages. A website doesn’t exist in isolation, it not only has links within itself but extends out and makes connections to other sites. The visitor navigating through various sites is taking a non-linear path. This has led internet commentators and psychologists to suggest that the brain operates in a more associative manner when scanning potentially vast amounts of information. In the programme, The Virtual Revolution: Homo Interneticus, Dr Aleks Krotoski questions whether the web is ‘overloading and distracting our brains’. As with exhibition navigation the amount of time spent with each exhibit or webpage can be fleeting. Some argue that books allow a much deeper interaction with information and a clearer locked down hierarchy. Nick James, editor of Sight and Sound Magazine, goes further and encourages written contributions that offer more detail than their competitors. With the growth of online information and supporting hardware devices such as the I-pad, the future of print publishing is predicted to become niche. Chris Brawn, art director of Sight and Sound, suggested at a recent LCC lecture (17.02.10) that as a publication’s circulation decreases, its membership becomes more specialised and the potential for higher quality production values increases. This suggests that media coexists in a symbiotic relationship rather than one form superseding another. An animated information visualisation of the hierarchy of importance within social network sites can be seen here.
Radio and television programmes typically start with an opening sequence establishing the personality of the programme in much the same way as an introductory web page does or a front cover does with a magazine or book. The key stories forming the programme are outlined in a few sentences at the beginning and act as an equivalent of a contents page with detailed information being expanded upon throughout the programme. The urgency and sense of importance was famously sent up by the programme The Day Today.
Information hierarchy within three-dimensional environments is related to the sequence of information encountered from entry to exit. Museums, department stores and business premises will often employ a directory to inform the visitor where they are in relation to where they want to go. Maps and guides supplement such systems to enable the visitor to gain a permanent view of where they are within a sequence of encounters. The architecture of a building will determine a hierarchy of usage. Once immersed within the three-dimensional information environment, signage in the form of type, directional symbols and informational icons on walls and floors indicate the visitor’s current position within the organised system. Exhibitions will often employ various levels of information hierarchy from main headings to captions enabling a flexible method of navigation.