How can I use shadows to enhance visual hierarchy in a design?


To enhance visual hierarchy in a design using shadows, strategically apply them to elevate critical elements such as buttons or calls to action. This makes them appear closer and more urgent to the user, drawing attention to primary actions. Additionally, vary shadow intensity and spread to create depth, helping to organize the interface into layers, suitable for secondary buttons or information tiles. Shadows can also improve usability by enhancing contrast, particularly in interfaces where color variations are subtle.

Detailed answer

By strategically applying shadows, designers indeed can manipulate perceived spatial relationships. It enhances the visual hierarchy, overall usability, and aesthetics of the design. Here are a few techniques you can use. 

Highlight key actions

Applying a drop shadow to critical elements like buttons or calls to action makes them appear elevated and closer to the user. This visual cue is especially effective for drawing attention to primary actions you want users to take, such as the "Buy Now" or "Sign Up" buttons. The shadow adds depth that differentiates these elements from less important items on the screen.

An example of the shadow implementation used to highlight an important action.


Related reading: What are the different types of shadows and when should each be used?

Create depth and focus

By varying the intensity and spread of shadows, you can create a sense of depth that helps organize the interface into layers. For instance, a soft, wide shadow might suggest that an element is slightly elevated, suitable for secondary buttons or information tiles. A sharper, more pronounced shadow could be used for elements that require immediate attention.

Four examples of the shadows on the elevated elements - from softer to sharper variations.


Enhance usability through contrast

Shadows can also enhance contrast in interfaces where color variations are subtle. This is crucial for accessibility, as it helps users with visual impairments discern interface elements more clearly. For example, input fields in forms can be made more visible and easier to locate by using an inner shadow, indicating that they are interactive areas for text entry.

An example of the shadow applied to the input fields.


Guide user navigation

In complex interfaces, such as dashboards or extensive menus, shadows can help in guiding the user through a flow by emphasizing navigational elements like side drawers or dropdown menus. The use of shadows here makes these elements pop out from the rest of the content, signaling paths users can take.

Implementation of shadow used to guide users to take certain actions.


🛠️ Useful tools 

These tools will make your job easier and more effective.

Figma shadows & blurs styles template 

🤝 Credits

Our content combines the knowledge of Cieden’s designers with insights from industry influencers. Big thanks to all the influencers for sharing awesome content!

3 Rules to Perfect Button Shadow by Ruslan Galba

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