Communications Studio: Typographic Hierarchy

September 12th: First Exercise

I feel like the word “hierarchy” is like a hot-button word designers can say to make people think they know what they’re talking about. If I were to tell my friends that a Sigma Alpha Epsilon recruitment poster had great hierarchy as we walked past it, they would definitely think I was being pretentious.

This assignment was interesting to me because it forced me to look at one element of hierarchy or contrast at a time, and nothing else. In all of the print deisgn work I’ve done before (in either Illustrator or InDesign mainly), I would manipulate multiple aspects of the type pretty rapidly: size, and then if that didn’t work, I’d add linespacing, then I’d adjust kerning, play with every weight available in the typeface, etc. After tediously exhausting the limited variables in this project, I realized I may not give each of these aspects enough thought in my previous design process.

Here’s some of my notes as I worked through this project. I was assigned the text for a film series that’s shown at Chatham University this year.

  • Right away, I did the first things I remembered Andrew showing us: I edited the master slide and put my name at the bottom, and I started out setting some paragraph styles, since I could tell there would be a need to shift back and forth between presets
  • Then I proofread!
  • I noticed that this typeface, Acumin, (above) has a very narrow spacing between numbers much more so than Univers which is used in our handouts. Not sure if this will impact how my final work comes out.
  • Very little distinguishable difference without line spacing, if I want the title to look separated, competing information is challenging. There are three level of hierarchy at least here, but not enough ways to distinguish with only line weight to use.
  • I personally enjoy the aesthetics of the third one (above) because the bold is sandwiched nicely within the medium text, but still the content is presented in a highly confusing way.
  • I was curious if a third stroke weight would be confusing or effective without line spacing.
  • I realized I took a very basic approach when I initially established hierarchy with weight: most important=heaviest, least important=lightest. There may be more to explore than just this idea.
  • I noticed!: gradual variance is not easy to see, much easier just to notice contrast in weight, rather than just heavy weight.
  • linespace was equally limiting: I did notice that separating a single line made it easier to read it, “admission free” at the bottom (shown below).

Indenting again felt limited. I tried to see how obnoxious I could get with it to see if that drastic a change would give enough hierarchy to the text I wanted to seperate, but at that point its so far over it starts interacting with the rag of the first indent and is super messy (it’s all messy, but this is bad). (below)

  • If I use a 6 tab margin, the “Code: debugging the Gender Gap” doesn’t fit: content posing a challenge!!!

Overall, I am now very eager to start synthesizing these individual techniques! This exercise was definitely limiting: I feel like I understand the early frustration of the “karate kid” on a new level right now.

September 13th-18th: Color Exploration

Now that we are starting to introduce color, I had to think a little more about my organization in terms of what mood and intention they want to give off in a poster. I am fortunate to be taking a color theory class concurrently, so I was able to take some of my understanding of color from there and apply it to this exercise.

I started out with an issue of “Essence” magazine and some tape. Essense happens to be very feminine and female-empowerment-focused, so I saw repeats of a lot of bold pinks and purples when tearing out swatches. I supplemented a little with friend’s, and compiled a couple different palettes in my sketchbook:

Later that day, I bought a glue stick.

I’ll admit, it was odd using my hands to rip up colors, and being confined only to the ones I could find person rather than the unlimited display on my screen. I did find it kind of liberating in some ways: instead of getting overwhelmed by the options of colors, I felt like I was rediscovering new ones that were already selected for me. From here, I started to play with on indesign, using these palettes to inform my process.

When working with a dark background color, often the closest color to white is the one that seems it pops out, it appears. In the case of the dark navy blue with red and pink, the pink seems to shine more even though that isn’t what I intended when picking the colors. Also, when I picked just white, it came across patriotic.

When we pinned up in class, I chose two of least provocative color combinations in this set, and I realized almost everyone else did as well. I’m not sure if we lacked bravery or if we felt our topics needed quieter colors, but when they were all pinned up next to each other I’ll admit it wasn’t that exciting. I went back and reconsidered whether or not bright colors are something I should prioritize.

Text Size

“Think carefully, but don’t shy away from bold moves.” I think this advice is especially important to take when thinking about the content of this poster.” It’s about social justice, so being serious and dramatic with design would make sense.

Playing with text size makes me reconsider automatically assigning hierarchy based on weight. Things I would usually make the boldest like the title, now can be enlarged, so maybe reserving bold text for smaller copy maintains more contrast.

I thought size would relieve a lot of the limits I was facing, but now it feels too open-ended! Also, paragraph styles are again really helpful here, I see now why we went through practicing how to use them.

For dates as small as those listed in the subheaders, I think it makes more sense to add linespacing rather than indenting, in most cases. Otherwise the paragraph just gets very busy and kind of exhausting to read.

Massive titles are fun, but overwhelming. Just using 56 or even 72 pt font for the title makes me want to try it with every item on the page and just use up all the white space, and see if I can establish hierarchy without it.

Overall, working with type size is challenging, but I feel like it is easier to test whether or not an experiment was successful. Color, on the other hand, is an odd game of guesswork. Moving forward, I need to be careful about how I take feedback from other peers.

September 20th: Working with images:

First off: Yikes! If you aren’t sure what you are looking for, stock photo libraries are not the best place for inspiration. In the process of searching for a motif for the film series, I dove into and Adobe Stock, and both places felt like a large compilation of dramatically lit objects and women smiling while doing various activities.

I couldn’t immediately think of a stock image I would want to see on this poster. If I thought of a generic shot of something around the “social justice’ theme, I imagine dark images of handcuffs or fists in the air or people protesting.

I also know that for this particular festival, each film has it’s own poster, so creating something super flashy for this even may conflict with the other posters if the graphics happen to appear near each other, so that is something else to consider. A lot of these films are about women’s rights/representation, so this poster may be geared to cater towards a female audience. I think it is good to be aware of this, though I’m not sure if it will largely influence what picture I pick. Here is some work exclusively with stock photos:

Something I noticed: when I would approach experimental work with type before this project, I don’t think I was as careful with it. After working in certain limitations this past week, I am noticing the size and relationship between technical parts of the type much more. I think I am treating it more delicately, which I hope benefits me.

Working solely on the computer is sometimes limiting, so at this point in the process, I went back to my sketchbook and tried mapping out the space there. I was getting caught up in trying to make stock images work, and I realized that an illustration might make more sense.

I also looked at the swiss poster designs from the Hunt Library collection, which was fun and bizarre. A lot of them maintain hierarchy while employing a lot of fun illustration techniques, including really wiggly and organic shapes paired with rigid typography. I am inspired.

At this point I tried moving away from images and going back to just shapes. I felt like I didn’t fully explore color alone in the previous exercise, so now I worked with blocking out text.

Also important to mention, I am focusing on female-empowerment and social justice as an overarching theme, and a serious-yet-artistic mood. All my colors and images theoretically should push the poster in this direction, and I wrote it on a sticky note to make sure I didn’t get carried away and lose sight of my goal while I explored.

While exploring motifs, I tried out an illustrator brush.

I thought maybe some brushstrokes on the page would allude to the artistic part of the festival without distracting with an actual image. However, filmmaking is not directly related to painting (in my opinion, at least), and that bothered me a little. But I pushed on with the brushstroke idea and started painting and scanning my own. Here are the first couple explorations into brushstrokes, which I printed and stared at for awhile.

After getting some feedback from my professor, TA’s and classmates, I realized that people were drawn to the brushstrokes because they were dynamic and they interacted with the title text.

I, however, was stubborn. I was set on including images that made sense, and I felt like I hadn’t explored women and human figures enough, which was an important part of the Just Film’s message. It was at this moment I wanted to step back a second and look at the mission of this poster. I was getting caught up in the technicalities of the grid stricture and variations on creating hierarchy, and forgetting the main mood/goal I wanted to achieve. I did more research into the site;

Just Films PGH has been an ongoing project put on by 4 different Women’s organizations in Pittsburgh. I pulled some key words and phrases from their mission:


Th website also says the films are about women, girls, gender equality and social justice: It seems a lot more women’s-focused than I originally thought, even though the title doesn’t say anything about that, which I thought was interesting.

So I explored the female form, in deep colors.

Although I never went with the female figures, I learned something about my process. Sometimes I need something new to happen in order to explore other aspects of the poster. Working with faces and hands made me think more about the space that my text was occupying, and I looked at newer ways to format the location, dates and “admission free” tag, which ended up being really rewarding when I moved back to brush strokes.This process is bizarre to me, because my most successful posters, and the ones people are responding to the most, are the ones I personally dislike the most. Figuring out how to navigate this situation is interesting

I then embarked on a long journey of scanning and scrutinizing the DPI of my little paintings, and playing with some photoshop filters (I often got carried away, but all in the process!)

I learned as I worked with colorizing photos that complementary colors are especially effective on a poster. We learned about a specific type of contrast in Color, “contrast of extension,” that utilises colors around the same saturation and hue expect one accent color, which contrasts sharply and really gets highlighted in composition. I focused on blue, because it was deep and serious, with a bright, powerful orange as an accent.

Tuesday, September 25th: 1st Critique

Illustrator crashed 20 minutes before I was going to print and I lost a ton of my process and the final poster I was about to print. It wasn’t much different than the recovered version, though. I realized I had been nitpicking for awhile, and my 20 minute version was alright. Here is the poster I settled on for our critique for local Pittsburgh designers.

The biggest thing that bothered me about the poster was the image resolution. I quickly rescanned and resharpened the day after, but I was embarrassed that the brushstrokes were so blurry. I don’t think anyone even noticed, but still.

I was very sad that the representative for Just Films didn’t make it to the critique. I was excited to ask her more about the series, especially these questions:

  • Why does just films choose not to include women in any of the main headlines or titles?
  • Is attendance an issue? or space? or directions?

I was grateful for the critique from the other designers that came. I had the opportunity to defend my choice for brushstrokes, which was weird for me since I had experienced my own personal turmoil over using them already. I explained to the woman who was “representing” Calliope Concerts (I forgot her name) that although this is filmmaking and not painting, the marks are add a ton of movement to the poster while keeping the images broad and not narrowing down on a particular film. Also, instead of actually incorporated human forms (which I tried), the strokes take on a sort of human-like shape — Juan said he saw hands in some of them — that ties into this social justice theme without explicitly saying it. It also emphasizes filmmaking as an art form, which was one of my goals. That’s what I said, and then we ran out of time and I didn’t get to hear a response and I’m sad about that too.

I didn’t get a ton of feedback, but some of my other classmates did and it was still helpful to see their work critiqued. One designer said that a lot of us were relying on big, bold text for the titles and then reducing it incrementally for the rest of the information, which he described as kind of the “easy way out” for establishing hierarchy. I thought a lot about this and how I could apply it to my poster. I think it would take a lot of work making sure the brushstrokes doesn’t overpower the composition if I were to start making all the text smaller, but it was a good thing to think about. The designers all brought up good points about hierarchy, especially on posters where it was suffering because we focused too much on imagery or we didn’t push ourselves with color. An interesting question that was brought up: “Which has greater hierarchy against a dark background: Bigger but colored text, or smaller but white?”

Success in projects like this, I’m learning, is achieved through lots of user testing. You iterate to your best version, and then you see what’s effective and what’s not.

My notes from the day.

September 26th: Final edits

As I said before, I tackled my poster with technical revisions as soon as I could. I talked with Andrew a lot about alignment, and learned that aligning display text actually doesn’t perfectly align it, since it’s aligning the type setting and not the actual object. I went in and adjusted the ‘Just” and “Films” so that they fit better together, and since the “J” has more negative space in the shape, fitting better meant pulling the “Just” further to the left to accommodate for this. It is interesting that the eye doesn’t need perfect alignment, but overall consideration for good spacing.

I wanted to try including more colors so that my orange text didn’t feel so random. I played with Photoshop, but settled only on variations of the blue hue.

I also made some (super important, in my opinion!) edits to the text size. I reduced the size of the dates under the film titles, and increased the size of the location, and adjusted where Admission FREE goes. I think I had lost sight of hierarchy a little bit in the last round of revision, so my poster needed a bit of a tune up.

Here are some shots from my last round of refinement.

And at last, the final poster.

The end product.

This was a challenging project, and especially interesting because we got feedback from a bunch of different people, including voices from outside our little Maggie Mo bubble. I still think that the content of my images could be pushed further with more iterations, and especially if I got the chance to talk more to people who worked directly with the series.

At times, I felt like I was on a leash that was only extended by a couple inches with every assignment, but looking back I realized I’ve changed the way I approach working with text. I think I have more respect for the way our eyes work: we need space and room to breath and movement to follow, and it takes a lot of careful work from designers in order to achieve that effortless look that the best posters have.

copyright jaclyn saik 2020

Designer. Currently at Asana, previously at Khan Academy. Language + Data + Digital + Print.