Talk the Talk: 25 Graphic Design Terms Every Serious Designer Should Know

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You’ve got a creative mind and a desire to apply your design talents in a career, but it’s a little intimidating to hang out with a group of designers who casually throw around industry terms you don’t see every day: CMYK? Saturation? Bleed?

While it might be a bit confusing at first, learning the lingo will not only benefit your work, but it could also enhance your reputation in the industry. Asking a seasoned designer to translate these terms would only shine a spotlight on your inexperience—and you definitely don’t want that. That’s where we come in to help.

We enlisted design professionals—freelancer Rick Penn-Kraus, web graphic designer Isabel Velez, and web designer Iuliia Shchilnyk—to help curate a list of some important graphic design terms for newbies to know. While this is not an exhaustive list of graphic design terms, it is a great place to start. Read on to find out what the experts say you should know:

25 Common graphic design terms

1. CMYK

Also known as four-color process, this abbreviation stands for cyan, magenta, yellow and key, which refers to black. This is a color model that refers to the four inks used in some color printing.

2. RGB

This abbreviation stands for red, green and blue. It’s a color mode for all images shown through an electronic display, such as a computer or television.

3. Kerning

The process of adjusting the spacing between specific characters in a font helps you to create proportional and balanced typography.

4. Trim

This is where your printed piece will be cut down to its correct size. It represents the final dimensions of your project.

5. Bleed

This refers to the area outside the trim that still prints in case the cuts are not exact. It gives the printer a small amount of space to account for the movement of the paper and design inconsistencies.

6. Pica

 A typesetting unit of measurement equaling one-sixteenth of an inch. InDesign and other design software use picas as a way to measure size and space.

7. Comp

A rough version of your design that is often created as a pencil sketch, but it can be digital as well.

8. Serif

This term refers to the little edges that stick out from letters in certain typefaces. For example, at the end of the letter “T” at the top left, right and at the base of the letter. Common serif fonts include Times New Roman, Georgia and Garamond.

9. Sans serif

A style of typeface in which there are no small lines at the end of each character stroke. Common sans serif typefaces include Arial, Helvetica and Verdana.

10. Lorem ipsum

Lorem ipsum is a form of “filler” used as a placeholder for text in a design. This scrambled Latin text allows designers to create design layouts without having access to the final written copy.

11. Hierarchy

A system for grouping the type based on the order of its importance so the reader can easily navigate through the content.

12. Resolution

Resolution is the image quality in the design based on dots per inch for printed works and pixels per inch for digital work. The higher the resolution, the crisper the photos will be.

13. Grid

An organized framework with even columns and rows that helps designers to align design elements in a more efficient and accurate way.

14. Vector graphic

An image made up of paths and curves (vectors) rather than a grid of pixels. Unlike raster images, these are able to be enlarged without losing image quality. Vector graphic file extensions include .EPS, .AI, .SVG and .DRW.

15. Bitmap

Defines a display space and the color for each pixel or “bit” in the display space. It is characterized by the number of pixels and the information content per pixel.

16. JPEG

A JPEG is an example of a graphic image file type that contains bitmaps. It is created for compressing full-color or grey-scale digital images of real-world scenes. It was not designed for lettering or cartoons.

17. Pixel

The smallest unit of a digital image or graphic that can be displayed and represented on a digital display device.

18. Tracking

Similar to, yet importantly different from kerning, tracking is adjusting the spacing throughout an entire word. Once kerning has been used to determine the right spacing between each letter, tracking can be used to change the spacing equally between every letter at once.

19. Saturation

Refers to the intensity of color in an image. Increased saturation causes colors to appear purer while decreased saturation causes colors to appear more washed out.

20. Tone

Tone is the lightness or darkness of a design element. Tone is crucial because it is responsible for creating the contrast between light and dark that will draw maximum attention in a design.

21. Style guide

A set of design standards for a specific brand to ensure complete consistency in the style and formatting of design assets. This often includes guidelines for color schemes, typefaces and how logos are used and placed within an asset, among others.

22. Orphan

Also known as a widow, this term refers to the words or short lines at the beginning or end of a paragraph. These words are isolated from the rest of the content, often causing an unwanted focal point.

23. Mock-Up

A realistic representation of how the design will look; a scale or full-size model of the design used to demonstrate, promote and validate the design. This can also be referred to as a “proof.”

24. Negative space

The space surrounding the words and shapes in your design. Some designers choose to use the negative space to create an additional design, like the arrow found between the “E” and the “X” of the FedEx logo.

25. Typography

This is the art of using typefaces to communicate. This skill encompasses both the typefaces and the negative space surrounding them.

Ready to apply these graphic design terms?

Understanding graphic design terms is just a small step in becoming a professional designer. Now that you’ve got a strong start in expanding your graphic design vocabulary and knowledge, it’s time to take it to the next level.

Talking the talk means very little if you can’t walk the walk. While it may be tempting to try and forge your way forward as a designer without formal training, there’s a lot you may miss out on. Check out our article, 7 Things Self-Taught Graphic Designers Don’t Know They’re Missing to learn more.


EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in October 2014. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2017.


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Emily is a freelance writer for Collegis Education who writes student-focused articles on behalf of Rasmussen College. Her excitement about research and writing comes from 7 years of teaching junior high language arts, and she believes in the value of writing's ability to educate and empower both the writer and the reader.

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