In today’s visually driven world, graphic design has become an indispensable art form influencing our everyday experiences. From captivating advertisements to sleek user interfaces, graphic design is the backbone of effective communication and creative expression. However, navigating the vast realm of graphic design can sometimes feel like deciphering a foreign language filled with unfamiliar jargon and terminology.
Whether you’re an aspiring designer, a marketing professional, or simply someone who appreciates the power of visual aesthetics, understanding graphic design’s fundamental terms and definitions is essential. To help you get up to speed quickly, we’ve compiled this comprehensive guide of all the critical graphic design terms you need to know, all explained in simple language.
You can also see our glossary of typography terms to expand your knowledge.
Graphic Design Terms You Should Know
Alignment involves organizing elements (such as text, images, and shapes) in a visually consistent manner. There are several types of alignment left, right, centered, and justified (see below for a definition of “justified”).
Analogous colors are any three colors that are side-by-side on the color wheel. When used together, they create a harmonious and visually pleasing combination.
The aspect ratio of an object is the proportional relationship between its width and height. Common aspect ratios include 4:3, 16:9, and 1:1. If an image is resized and the aspect ratio is changed, the image will be distorted, or part of the image will be clipped or cropped.
A baseline is an invisible horizontal line that text sits on. The baseline helps to ensure that all text appears even and aesthetically pleasing.
A bitmap (also known as a “raster”) is an image made up of individual pixels or “bits.” It’s a rasterized file format, and the individual pixels become visible when zoomed in. Unlike vectors, bitmaps cannot be scaled up without losing sharpness and clarity. Bitmaps are typically used for detailed images like photographs. Common bitmap formats include JPEG and PNG.
A bleed is the area of a printed document that extends beyond the edges. This is needed to ensure that all elements of the page print correctly and that you don’t end up with white lines or margins on the finished product due to cuts not being 100% precise.
Body copy (or body text) is the main text of a document or page. This is typically the primary source of information on a page or design. Body copy is typically smaller than headlines or titles. The font used for the body copy should be easy to read, like a basic serif or sans serif.
A brand identity is the visual representation of a company or product. It includes logos, colors, fonts, and other design elements that help set it apart from its competitors. A strong brand identity ensures customers can easily recognize a brand and its products and services.
CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key (Black). These are the four colors used in the process of printing. Documents designed for print should be saved using this color mode to ensure accurate color reproduction. Otherwise, the printed colors may not resemble those used in the design as they appear on a screen.
For more details, please read CMYK vs. RGB
A color palette is a set of colors used in a design. It can be as small as two colors or as large as ten or more. See our color palettes library for examples and inspiration.
Color theory is the study of how colors interact with each other and the effect they have on viewers (color psychology). It’s an essential part of graphic design, as it helps to ensure that a design looks aesthetically pleasing and communicates the desired message. Color theory should be used when choosing colors or creating a color palette.
Complementary colors are any two colors that are directly opposite each other on the color wheel. When used together, they create a striking and vibrant contrast.
Contrast is the use of two different elements to emphasize each other. In graphic design, this can involve using opposing colors, sizes, shapes, or textures to draw attention to an element. For example, combining light and dark colors (like black and white) produces contrast. Contrast is an important design element because it helps create visual interest and provide depth.
Blue, green, and light purple evoke a sense of calmness and relaxation and are often used in designs to create a soothing atmosphere.
Cropping is removing part of an image to improve its composition, focus on a specific element, or change the aspect ratio.
Crop marks are the lines that indicate where a printed document should be trimmed. They ensure accuracy when cutting a larger sheet into smaller sizes (e.g., business cards).
A design brief is a document created by a client (sometimes with the help of a designer) that outlines the scope of work, goals, and expectations for a project. It helps to ensure that all parties involved are on the same page and working towards a common goal. A design brief should include the desired outcome, target audience, timeline, budget, and other relevant information.
Dots Per Inch (DPI)
Dots per inch (DPI) is a measure of resolution for printed images. A higher DPI means the image will be sharper and more detailed when printed, while a lower DPI may produce a blurred or pixelated result.
For more details, please read DPI vs. PPI.
Embossing and Debossing
Embossing and debossing are printing techniques that create raised (embossed) or sunken (debossed) areas within a document. They are often used to add texture and dimension to a design but can also be used as a branding element. For example, a business card may use embossing or debossing on a logo or text.
EPS stands for Encapsulated PostScript. This is a type of vector file format that can be opened and edited in Adobe Illustrator or other vector-editing software. It’s often used when printing since it produces high-quality images. One of the reasons why this file format is popular is because it is supported by most graphic design software.
Foil stamping is a printing technique that uses heat and pressure to apply a thin layer of metallic foil onto paper. It can be used to add shine, texture, and dimension to a design. This technique is often used on business cards or other documents that require an extra level of sophistication.
The golden ratio is a mathematical equation used to define the proportions of an aesthetically pleasing design. It consists of two numbers in the form of a Fibonacci sequence (1:1.618). This ratio has been used for centuries by artists and designers to create balanced compositions.
A gradient is a gradual transition between two or more colors. It can be used to add visual interest and depth to a design. Gradients are often used in backgrounds, illustrations, and logo designs.
Greyscale refers to an image composed of shades of black, white, and grey. This type of image is often used in designs that require a minimalistic look or subtle texture.
A grid is a layout structure used to organize elements within a design. It consists of horizontal and vertical lines that divide the page into sections, making it easier for designers to place content in an organized way. (The lines may not be visible, but they dictate the alignment of elements within the design.) Grids are often used in print designs such as brochures or magazines.
Hex codes are strings of letters and numbers that represent a specific color. They are commonly used on websites to define the colors of elements such as text, backgrounds, and borders. Hex codes consist of six characters (e.g., #FF0033).
Hierarchy is the arrangement of elements within a design. It involves organizing text, images, and other content to communicate importance or create emphasis. This helps the viewer navigate a design and understand its message easily.
Hue is the name of a color (e.g., red, blue, etc.). It can be used as part of a color scheme to create an aesthetically pleasing design.
An icon is a small graphic that can be used to represent an idea or concept. It’s often used in interfaces, infographics, and other visual designs to communicate information quickly and effectively. For example, an icon of a printer is often used to indicate the print functionality. To be effective, icons must be clear and intuitive so users know what they represent.
JPEG stands for Joint Photographic Experts Group. This bitmap file format is commonly used to store and share photos and other digital images on the web. The file size of JPEGs can be reduced without much quality loss, making them ideal for websites or online applications.
Justified is a text alignment option that lines up the edges of a text block on both the left and right (as opposed to left-aligned or right-aligned). This creates a consistent and uniform look, often used in magazines or other print documents.
Kerning is the process of adjusting the space between two characters in a font. It helps make the text more legible and visually pleasing by creating even spacing between each letter.
Leading is the amount of vertical space between lines of text. Increasing leading can help make text easier to read, while decreasing it can create a denser look.
Letterpress is a printing technique that involves pressing inked letters onto paper. It can be used to add shine, texture, and dimension to a design. This technique is often used on business cards or other documents that require an extra level of sophistication.
The margin is the space around the edges of a design (or an element within a design). It helps create balance and creates space for text or other elements. The size of the margins can be adjusted to emphasize specific parts of the design or make it look more organized.
A masthead is a heading at the top of a page or document, usually containing the title or logo. It can create visual hierarchy and make a design look more organized, or it can be used simply for visual interest.
A mockup is a design used to visualize how a product or document will look when it’s complete. It can help designers get an idea of how their work will appear in its final form, and can also be used to present the design to clients. For example, a t-shirt designer may use a mockup to show how a design will look on an actual shirt.
Monochromatic colors are variations of a single hue (e.g., various shades of blue). This type of color scheme is often used to create a unified and harmonious look, as all the colors will have the same underlying tone.
A moodboard is a collection of images, colors, or other elements used to represent the visual direction of a project. It helps designers explore ideas and create a unified vision for their designs. Clients can also use moodboards to communicate what they want in the project.
Negative space is the area around an element in a design. It can create balance, focus attention, and emphasize elements. To achieve this, designers use shapes or colors that contrast with the main elements of the design. A common example of negative space is from the FedEx logo. The space between the “e” and the “x” resembles an arrow.
Opacity is a measure of how transparent or opaque an object is. Lower opacity will make an element appear more transparent and faded, while higher opacity will make it appear more solid and vibrant. This can be used to create depth or emphasis within a design.
An orphan is a single word or short line of text on its own line in a page or column. The orphan is separated from the rest of the text because of poor word or line breaks, resulting in an uneven look. It’s important to avoid orphans as they draw attention away from the surrounding text.
Pantone colors are standardized color systems used in the printing industry. Each Pantone color is identified by its own specific code, which helps designers and printers achieve consistent color results regardless of where or how they print a design.
PDF (Portable Document Format) is a file format that retains a document’s original formatting and layout, regardless of what device or software it is opened on. This makes PDFs ideal for sharing documents with clients or colleagues, as they can view them exactly how it was intended.
A pixel is the smallest unit of a digital image. Pixels are generally not visible to the naked eye, but if you zoom in, you will notice a blocky appearance and see the separation of pixels.
Pixels Per Inch (PPI)
Pixels per inch (PPI) measures how much detail an image contains. A higher PPI means more pixels and increased detail, while a lower PPI means fewer pixels and less detail. It’s important to use the correct PPI when printing, as it will affect the overall quality of the output.
A placeholder is a dummy text or image that indicates where content will go when the design is finished. Placeholders are typically used in wireframes and mockups, providing an idea of the final product’s appearance without needing actual content.
PNG (Portable Network Graphics) is a raster file format used for images. It supports transparency (unlike JPEG), allowing for more creative freedom in designs. It’s also lossless, meaning it compresses data without losing any of the image’s original quality or detail.
Point size is a unit of measurement used to indicate the size of typefaces. The larger the point size, the bigger the typeface will appear in a design. Point sizes are typically measured in points (abbreviated “pt”).
A printer’s proof is a printed version of the design used to check for errors before the final print. It allows designers and printers to catch potential issues before producing the final product. The purpose of the proof is to reduce errors that lead to unnecessary printing costs and waste.
PSD (Photoshop Document) is a file format used by Adobe Photoshop. PSDs can store a wide range of design data, including layers. This makes them invaluable for designers who use Photoshop as their main software. The PSD file format is typically used for work in progress and the finished product may be saved in another format. The original PSD file should be kept as a backup so changes can be made anytime.
Raster (also known as “bitmap”) images are made up of individual pixels and are best suited for photographs or complex designs. Increasing the size of a raster image will cause it to lose quality. Vector images, on the other hand, are resolution independent, so they can be resized without any loss in quality.
For more details, please reader Raster vs. Vector.
Readability is the measure of how easy a design is to read. Factors such as font size, line spacing, column width, and color contrast can all affect the readability of a design. It’s important for designers to consider these factors when creating designs intended for large amounts of text or long-form content.
Resolution refers to the amount of detail a design contains (usually measured by width x height in terms of pixels). Higher-resolution images contain more pixels and thus display more detail. It’s important to use the correct resolution when printing, as it will affect the overall quality of the output.
RGB (Red, Green, Blue) is a color model used on screens. It works by combining red, green, and blue light to create other colors. RGB is the standard for web design since all monitors display in this format. Any design that will be viewed on a screen should be created in the RGB color mode, as opposed to CMYK.
Rule of Thirds
The rule of thirds is a concept from photography and videography but can also be applied to graphic design. It suggests an image should be divided into nine equal parts, with the content placed at intersecting points for balance and visual interest. This technique helps create more balanced, aesthetically pleasing designs.
Saturation is a measure of the intensity of a color. More saturated colors appear brighter and have more visual impact, while those with lower saturation look dull and muted.
Scale relates to the size of a design, usually in terms of width and height. Designs can be scaled up or down depending on the desired output. It’s important to use the appropriate scale when printing to make the final product sharp and legible.
A stock photo is a pre-made image that adds visual interest to designs. Stock photos can be licensed or downloaded from online sources such as Envato Elements and Shutterstock. They’re often used in various designs because they are convenient and inexpensive. However, thousands of brands or individuals may use popular stock photos, so they will not be unique to you.
A style guide is a document that defines the visual elements of a brand. It outlines things like logo design, typography, color schemes, imagery, and other elements that should be used in any branded materials. A style guide helps maintain consistency and ensures that all designs adhere to the same standards. Creating and following a style guide results in a stronger and more consistent brand image. Some clients may provide designers with a style guide to follow so that all materials adhere to their standards.
Symmetry is the use of two sides that are equal or nearly equal in appearance. Symmetrical designs often look balanced and aesthetically pleasing.
Texture refers to the visual appearance of a design. Texture can be created by adding patterns, lines, or other elements to the design rather than relying only on solid or flat colors. Textures can add depth and interest to designs and help draw the viewer’s eye in certain directions. It can also give a certain feel or emotion to a design. For example, rough textures can be used to create a grungy look.
A thumbnail is a smaller version of an image or design. Thumbnails are often used in galleries, portfolios, and other online platforms as they take up less space. Thumbnails are also used to promote designs on social media, as they can fit within the platform’s required dimensions.
Tint is a variation of a color. It’s created by adding white to the base color to lighten it. Tints are often used to add subtle variations and depth to designs.
Triadic colors are a combination of three equally spaced colors on the color wheel. These combinations can create visually striking designs, providing good contrast while still looking harmonious.
Typography is the art of arranging type in a design. It includes details like font size, line spacing, kerning, and other aspects of type design. Choosing the right typeface for a project can help bring a design to life and make it more visually engaging.
Vector graphics are images created using mathematical algorithms rather than pixels. While they can’t contain photos, vector graphics can be scaled up or down without losing quality or sharpness (unlike raster or bitmap images). They’re often used in logos and illustrations because of their versatility and scalability.
Warm colors are those that evoke feelings of warmth and energy, like red, orange, and yellow. These colors can be used to create vibrant designs that draw attention.
White space is the area around the main element in a design. White space is used to give the design breathing room and to make it easier for viewers to read. It can also help create a sense of order and balance in a design.
A widow is a single word or short line at the end of a paragraph that appears alone on the next line. This often looks awkward and can disrupt the flow of a design.
Final Thoughts on Design Terminology
Graphic design is a complex field, and there are many terms associated with it. Understanding the various terms can help designers create better designs and communicate more effectively with their clients. By familiarizing yourself with these graphic design terms, you’ll be able to approach every project armed with the necessary knowledge.