Project 1: Visual Hierarchy

ReelAbilities Film Festival

Prompt: Using visual hierarchy, design a poster that communicates a story/message of a local event to a specified audience.

Part 1 — Research & Understanding Hierarchy


  • ReelAbilities is an organization, based in New York, dedicated to promoting awareness and appreciation of artists with disabilities. They host several festivals around the world featuring films and artwork by people with disabilities. The names of the performers should be emphasized as they are the center of the event.
  • The Pittsburgh festival will be from September 7–11, 2022 at the Highmark Theatre in Point Park University. There will be several showcases at different times and days, so the date/time will also need to be emphasized for audiences to attend.
  • Audiences have the option of purchasing several types of tickets online (VIP passes, early passes, general admission…etc.).
  • The organization is dedicated to celebrating diversity through our “shared human experience” as well as promoting the inclusion of people of all types of disabilities. They emphasize the need for providing “accessible conditions to match the different needs of our multi-layered society.”
  • The audience I will be designing for is pretty diverse: there are not only disabled and abled people alike, but also people who are passionate about promoting awareness and people who are interested in being educated.

To get an insider’s perspective on ReelAbilities, I contacted the Marketing & Communications manager, Jenna Potts, to get some insight into what the event is about. She told me this:

  • If she could describe ReelAbilities in two words, she would say it’s “Representation Matters.
  • The dynamic of the community is inclusive and fun.
  • She would describe the films as diverse, dynamic, and real.
  • Both able-bodied people and disabled people alike attend the festival.
  • “I’d say the two short film blocks from this year’s lineup (block one plays 9/9 and the second plays 9/11) are a good (and fun!) intro to ReelAbilities since they portray such a wide variety of topics, disabilities, and genres all at once.”

Brainstorming Adjectives (bolded=chosen adj.):

  • Diverse
  • Welcoming
  • Artistic
  • Unity
  • Contemporary
  • Expressive
  • Real
  • Inclusive
  • Dynamic
  • Fun

Statement: “Representation Matters.”

Hierarchy Exercises

We were constrained to using specific hierarchy elements, like stroke width, line spacing, and horizontal shifts, to compose several text compositions.

Exercise 1: Stroke Width

  • Having fewer bold lines draws more attention to the text and separates text into groups.
  • Too many bold lines cause less distinction of groups.
  • Using very different stroke widths (like 45 and 75) creates more contrast and allows more distinguishability between groups.

Exercise 2: Line Spacing

  • Not enough line space creates less distinction between groups.
  • Too much line space creates confusion as to which information belongs to which category.

Exercise 3 & 4: Two & Three Flush

  • Looks most appealing when flush is used to separate information into blocks.
  • Too much variance in flush can cause unwanted shapes seen in negative space.
  • When tabs are too wide, it is hard for viewers to read across the page.

Exercise 5 & 6: Stroke + Line Spacing/Horizontal Shifts

  • Placing a line space then a bold line makes groups most distinguishable.
  • Too many spaces and/or too many bold lines make information less distinguishable.
  • Bolded lines with the shifts felt redundant given that they are already separated.

Part 2— Scale & Color



Moving on to experimenting with scale on paper, I played around with giving emphasis to different categories of information — title, dates/time, performers, and names of events. Changing the sizes, strokes, and proximity of the text allowed me to give emphasis to different pieces of information.

I found it very challenging to use the grids since they felt very constraining and I tended to ignore them. It was hard to align things in the center and play around with tilting or arching the text since I always felt constrained within the lines.

Favorite Scale Experimentations

Things I learned:

  • Separating information into blocks/clusters is most effective in immediate category recognition.
  • Spreading information out makes everything appear messy as a whole.
  • Utilizing negative space to create groups creates a cleaner appearance.
  • Utilizing more than 3 sizes makes things feel chaotic.
  • Utilizing more than 4 categories delays recognition in group distinction — separating performers + events yields too many categories; combining the two is most suitable.
  • The inconsistency of information for ReelAbilities makes it challenging to group things, but I found that the fewer groups, the better.

Moving into the digital realm, I started creating various iterations from my paper compositions and began playing around with more dynamic layouts.

The information given for ReelAbilities is a lot of information so it was challenging for me to find the best layout that would be the most readable. I found that I really liked these vertical layouts because they work well with having big chunks of information that cannot be separated.

I also played around with combining horizontal and vertical layouts.

I knew the dates and event titles were most important for my audience, so I tried separating these pieces of information. I tried separating the times from the dates but found it became too chaotic. I also realized that using “Film Festival” instead of “ReelAbilities” as the main focus was a better choice since most people are unfamiliar with the event.

I then began to play around with the placement of text like rotating the text at an angle and aligning the titles so that all the i’s were aligned.


The next step was to explore how color can create hierarchy and inform hierarchal decisions. We started out by cutting out colors from magazines, exploring the physical states of color before moving into the digital realm.

Paper color palettes.

I began by exploring analogous color schemes, then ventured off into complementary schemes and schemes that came from plain intuition. I found that the most appealing schemes contained two colors that are similar and one color that is very different (connecting this to Color class: primary + secondary + accent).

I also thought about my adjectives that describe ReelAbilities: real, expressive, and unity. To me, these words sound like colors that are harmonious (unity), bold (expressive), and raw (real).

I chose a few palettes to apply to a composition from the previous scale exercises.

Starting off slow, I started applying the triadic color schemes, one color at a time. Here are some things I noticed:

  • Applying the color schemes reaffirmed my later realization that effective schemes contain two colors that are similar and one that is different.
  • I tend to use similar colors for the background and small texts (because they blend together and do not have much priority) and a very different color for the title texts.
  • Vibration makes things hard to see. Avoid putting opposite colors close to each other.

I started adding shapes in the background to see how this would affect how we see the text. Here’s what I found it does:

  • Draws attention to the area.
  • Bounds information.
  • Balances out the negative space.
  • Highlights important texts.
  • Divides text.
  • Aids with flow of composition.
  • Reveals text that is the same as the background color.

Feedback for composition on the left:

  • Good use of negative space — obvious groups are seen.
  • Both explorations were evenly divided across the page; maybe explore uneven divisions — splitting into thirds, going off the edge of the page, try using grids to loosen up (Fibonacci grids — golden ratio).

Feedback for composition on the right:

  • Avoid 50/50 divisions across the center of the page.
  • Align the dates with either the bottom or top of the horizontal groups. OR try spacing out the groups evenly and placing dates in accordance.
  • Make ReelAbilities stand out more by increasing the space around it.

Things we talked about in class:

  • The amount of negative space can determine if there’s too much going on or not enough.
  • Create intentional choices that promote hierarchy (what’s the purpose of extending the letter form?).
  • Going off the edge of the paper changes the dynamic of the composition (a smaller circle on a rectangular poster draws more attention because of the contrast in shapes).

Part 3— Imagery


I wanted to experiment with a wide variety of images, ranging from direct representations of film (televisions and projectors) to abstract representations of the event’s mood (fluidity, expression, and boldness).

Image Placement Exercises

In class, we talked about our interpretation of the image, the enhancement of the image, and how the type and image are integrated. Overall, the most important point was having the image enhance the text. The image’s purpose is to help get the idea get across rather than challenge it.

At this point in my exploration, I was really struggling with figuring out the best way to represent ReelAbilities as a whole. I wanted to represent the people of ReelAbilities and the films but found it very difficult to find an image that represents both aspects of the event.

Some of the feedback I got on my initial explorations:

  • Some of these images were too literal (the television and projector).
  • Some were too abstract (liquid mocha, rainbow metal, hand). Many people did not get a sense of what the event is about.
  • Vicki suggested I play around with the hand image since it was a very humanistic form and could represent sign language and “ability.” I agreed because I felt like it was a happy middle (between too literal and too abstract), it might just need a statement to help the viewer get the idea.
Hand images I found.

I started looking for images of painted hands because I felt like they would portray a sense of creativity and artistic expression, which I think is relevant to the films.

I decided to experiment with this image because I felt like it gave a very expressive and artistic quality, which represents the same qualities of the people that created the films. Since ReelAbilities is a festival that spotlights disabled people being able, I felt like the hands themselves symbolized these filmmakers’ ability.

I began by playing around with the placement of the text and image on the page, forgetting about color temporarily. I thought the first and last layouts were the most effective in integrating the image with the text.

Feedback from Vicki:

  • There is too much to look at and too much going on due to the lack of proximity and the integration of the image and the word “film.”
  • The viewer is unsure of where to look first.
  • Try experimenting with composition 1 from the previous experiment.
  • Experiment with one element at a time (first, play around with the image by itself, then add text, and color).
  • Try making the finger point at something (maybe “Representation Matters.”)

I felt the projector image from the initial image exercises was effective in portraying film, and I wanted to incorporate that into this composition with the hand. I started to play around with vector shapes and added a gradient in the background.

I was hoping the light effect would remind people of lighting from a theatre/cinema. However, when I asked other people in the studio for feedback, some said it gave them a spiritual feeling, most likely stemming from the gesture of the hand and how the light is coming in from an angle. This was not what I was going for :/

Feedback from Jenny + Hayoon after showing them Iteration #2:

  • The lighting effect gives a spiritual/church feeling.
  • Use a plain background and play around by adding shapes (organic/geometric) and lines to the background.
  • Play around with overlaying textures (watercolor?)
  • Integrate text with hand by overlapping/intertwining.

Taking Jenny + Hayoon’s advice, I started playing around with adding shapes in the background to help highlight the title and statement.

After some quick explorations with the shapes, I soon began to question their purpose. Do the shapes help the text hierarchy or are they just distracting? I started asking around the studio and received several comments:

  • “The shapes remind me of a landscape. The circle is the sun and the green shape is the land.” — Landscapes don’t say anything about the festival, so these shapes might be misleading.
  • “Reminds me of mid-autumn festival.” — Probably don’t want my audience to be reminded of a completely different event.
  • “I don’t understand their purpose. It doesn’t help me understand what the event is about.” — Very true, the shapes don’t really speak to the festival, especially the color (though attractive) might be misleading.
  • “I feel like your text hierarchy and the hand pointing to the text gives the text enough emphasis that you don’t need the circle.” — This comment was probably the one that convinced me to get rid of the shapes as I strongly agree that the shapes were solely for aesthetic purpose and did not help with hierarchy or help convey the festival.

At this point in my process, I was very stuck — I was worried about leaving the poster blank with only an image, but everything I added so far has been harming the text hierarchy and/or non-representative of the festival. I went back to something I remember Vicki saying: simplicity might sometimes be the answer. Although a bit reluctant, I decided this may be the answer to my poster.

I roughly aligned things to the Fibonacci sequence, wanting to draw most of the attention towards the tip of the finger and title, then looping around to “Pittsburgh Playhouse” and down to the body text.

Maggie told me the colors look really patriotic, so I changed the red to orange and made the blue lighter. I felt these colors acted as a nice compliment to the redness of the hand. I also reduced the number of colors to create less confusion between groups.

I began fine-tuning — adjusting the text placement, scale, stroke weight, and how the hand was interacting with the text.

Although I didn’t use these in my final poster, it was a lot of fun overlaying various textures onto the shapes and backgrounds.


This project pushed me to think about hierarchy in creative ways. The exercises at the beginning of this project were especially helpful for me in learning how to orient and adjust text using scale, stroke weight, proximity, and color, to prioritize different categories of information. Tweaking minor details, like having the text run off the page, adding a shape to the background, or changing the tone of colors, changes the dynamic of the poster drastically. Printing and stepping back to view the poster helped illuminate details that I became accustomed to seeing on screen.

The most challenging part of this project was finding an image that best represented ReelAbilities. Since the festival is so diverse in both the types of films shown and the people who created the films, it was hard to consider all of these factors in just a single image. With the help of the instructors and TAs, I found it helpful to focus on a single idea and communicate it through an image that found a balance between direct representation and abstraction. I wish I had committed to an image earlier in my process so that I could have explored more with adding visual effects/elements to create more interest, however, I feel like I’ve accomplished establishing hierarchy in my final poster which was the ultimate goal of this project.



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