Talk the Talk: 84 Graphic Design Terms Every Serious Designer Should Know

designer working at computer 

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 design 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.

84 Common graphic design terms you should 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.

Design terms: The basics

  1. Body copy

The main text of any sort of design. The body copy is distinct from the logo, headline or subheading. You’re reading body copy right now!

  1. Comp

A rough version of your design that is often created as a pencil sketch, but it can be digital, as well. Short for “comprehensive layout.”

  1. 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 design “proof.”

  1. Mood board

A collection of like or complementary images and texts that cohesively construct a potential overall aesthetic for a project or brand.

Design terms: Images

  1. AI file

A vector image (see below) format used for original Adobe® Illustrator design files.

  1. DPI

Acronym meaning “dots per inch.” A higher dpi means a more detailed image, but limitations may remain depending on the type of format the image will appear in.

  1. EPS

A vector image (see below) format often used for high resolution printing.

  1. GIF

Whether you pronounce it with a hard or soft G, it’s a raster image (see below) format best for animation and transparency in limited colors.

  1. Jpeg

A JPEG (or jpeg or 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.

  1. PDF

A raster image (see below) format best used for print files and web-based documents.

  1. Pixel

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

  1. PNG

A raster image (see below) format with millions of colors available.

  1. PPI

Refers to “pixels per inch” and measures the density of pixels used on electronic devices, like camera screens or monitors.

  1. PSD

A raster image (see below) format best for layered Adobe® Photoshop design files.

  1. Raster image

A raster, or bitmap, image is a graphic that is composed of a grid of pixels, with each pixel having values for color, hue, saturation and transparency. Unlike vector images, these graphics do not scale well and will become pixelated as you “zoom in” or enlarge the graphic.

  1. RAW

A raster image (see above) format best for unprocessed data from digital cameras.

  1. Resolution

A measure of image quality based on dots per inch for printed works and pixels per inch for digital work. The higher the resolution, the crisper the image will be.

  1. Stock photo

Licensed images available for designers to use that negate the need for the designer to coordinate an entire photo shoot.

  1. Texture

Can refer to either the actual physical feel of a design or the way a viewer imagines a design might feel. By using textured graphics, a design can visually imitate actual texture.

  1. Thumbnail sketch

A small rough draft of an image drawn by a designer during the conceptualization phase of a design project. 

  1. TIFF

A raster image (see above) format best for high-quality print graphics and scans.

  1. Vector image

A vector image is a scalable graphic format. Unlike raster or bitmap images, it does not rely on a grid of pixels to form the graphic, which alleviates pixelation issues as the image is resized.

Design terms: Layout

  1. Alignment

This refers to the way individual elements of a design are arranged. This is commonly seen in text placement—for example, most lines of text in a Microsoft Word® document are left-aligned, where the text forms a uniform line on the left-hand side. 

  1. Balance

This term refers to the distribution of visual elements in a design. A balanced design is generally appealing visually, but an unbalanced graphic can be used to guide the eye to the most important information.

  1. Bleed

The area outside the designated “trim lines” of a design that is still printed in case the cuts are not exact. Essentially a bit of ‘extra’ outside the edges of a design that insures against an inexact cut of the print.

  1. Grid

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

  1. Knolling

A technique that involves arranging different design elements at 90-degree angles and photographing from above. Knolling creates an organized and symmetrical look. In photography, the elements being arranged are often the possessions of their subject—for instance all of the tools of a toolbox being neatly laid out.

  1. Margins

The space between the design elements and the edges of the page, the width of which can affect the overall feel of the piece.

  1. 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.

  1. Radial

A design where the elements radiate from a central focal point, spreading outward.

  1. Rule of thirds

This refers to the act of dividing an image with two vertical and two horizontal lines to help designers determine a visually appealing focal point and balance their composition.

  1. Scale

The size of one object in relation to another design element. Extreme differences in scale can draw attention and create drama.

  1. Skeuomorphism

A style of design that creates a digital imitation of a physical object. For example, the buttons found in the calculator app on your phone resembling the buttons of a real calculator. Skeumorphic designs have the illusion of depth—so a skeumorphic button looks like it can be pressed “in” or “out.”

  1. White space

White space includes any part of the design without an image or text.

Design terms: Color

  1. Analogous colors

A combination of colors built out of shades close to each other on the color wheel. For example, red and orange.

  1. Color theory

The study of how colors affect viewers mentally and emotionally—which can differ depending on the audience’s background. This is used to determine which colors create the energy the brand is seeking.

  1. Complementary colors

This term refers to color pairs that sit opposite of each other on the color wheel and together create visual tension.

  1. Cool colors

Cool colors like blues, greens and violets tend to have a calming effect. It’s simple to add a cooler look to a design by highlighting the blue tones. (See also “Warm colors.”)

  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. (See also “RGB.”)

  1. Gradient

A gradual shift from one color to another based on the color wheel.

  1. Grayscale

This term refers to a color palette that only uses black, white and the shades of gray in between. Black and white films are an easy example of grayscale in practice.

  1. Hex code

A six-digit code that represent a specific color, often used in computer design programs. 

  1. Hue

The purest form of the original colors—red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet.

  1. Monochrome

A color palette built out of various shades and tints of just one color. This is similar to grayscale, but encompasses all colors—for example, you could have a monochromatic image that is entirely shades of red.

  1. Opacity

A measure of a color’s transparency. The higher the opacity, the less you can see what lies behind it. The less opacity, the more transparent the element is. A black circle, for example, has high opacity.

  1. Palette

The selection of colors for a design—they typically complement each other and represent the brand well.

  1. Pantone®

The Pantone® Matching System is a standardized numerical classification of precise color identification for color printing, which makes it easier for designers to reference exact color shades.

  1. 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. (See also “CMYK.”)

  1. Saturation

The intensity of color in an image. Increased saturation causes colors to appear purer or more vibrant, while decreased saturation causes colors to appear more washed out.

  1. Shade

The result of a pure hue with black added.

  1. Tint

The result of a pure hue with white added. For example, pastel colors like pink or light blue.

  1. Tone

The lightness or darkness of a design element. The tone of a hue can be changed by increasing the level of neutral gray. 

  1. Triadic

A color theme composed of three colors equally dispersed around the color wheel. In designs this often works out to a split where one is the main or dominant color, another is used as a secondary support color and the other is used sparingly as an accent.

  1. Warm colors

Warm colors refer to the reds, oranges and yellows that usually have an energizing effect. (See also “Cool colors.”)

Design terms: Typography

  1. Ascender

The upward stem on some lowercase letters like d, b or h that extend beyond the median of the letter.

  1. Baseline

The invisible line that the letters rest on and align with. The baseline determines where the x-line is and what’s a descender or ascender.

  1. Descender

The downward stems on lowercase letters like p, g or j that extend below the baseline.

  1. Display type

Large, prominent type designed to catch the viewer’s eye. For example, movie titles on posters, newspaper headlines and article titles.

  1. Font weight

Indicates the thickness of a font. For example, bold type has a heavier font weight.

  1. Hierarchy

System for grouping text based on the order of the content’s importance so the reader can easily navigate through the content.

  1. Kerning

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

  1. Leading

Pronounced “ledding,” leading is the space between lines of a font. When the leading is too small the content can be difficult to read. On the other hand, leading that is too loose can feel disjointed.

  1. Legibility

Describes how easy it is to read a block of text and distinguish each letter.

  1. 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.

  1. Orphan

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.

  1. Pica

A typesetting unit of measurement equaling one-sixth of an inch.

  1. Pull Quote

A short excerpt from the main text of an article or long copy that is displayed prominently to highlight the most important concepts, often used in magazines.

  1. 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.

  1. Script

A kind of a typeface that resembles cursive handwriting and can appear more polished or casual depending on the details. Script examples include Milasian, Leckerli One and Good Vibes.

  1. Serif

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

  1. Slab serif

A category of typeface composed of thick, sturdy lines, often used for headlines. Examples include Archer, Rockwell and Neutraface Slab.

  1. Tracking

Similar to, yet significantly different from kerning, tracking involves 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.

  1. Typography

The design and readability of various type.

Design terms: branding

  1. Brand

The conceptual way your company is perceived—its values, tone, aspirations and ethos.

  1. Brandmark

A specific type of logo that uses a symbol instead of the company name, like the Nike swoosh.

  1. Brand identity

The visual version of your brand which can include a logo, slogan, website, packaging and other marketing materials

  1. Emblem

A logo that encompasses the company’s name using various shapes and frames.

  1. Lettermark

Logos featuring stylized letters, usually a company’s initials, so the viewer can tell what brand they’re engaging with by just two or three letters—for example, IBM and CNN.

  1. Pictorial mark

Specific, strictly visual, icons that represent a brand, like the Target bullseye or the McDonald’s arches.

  1. 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.

Design terms: Finishing processes

  1. Die cut

A finishing process of cuts done after printing to create a unique shape or texture.

  1. Foil stamping

A method, also called hot stamping, of melting foil or pre-dried ink to a design to create a metallic finish.

  1. Embossing

The practice of using a printing press’s metal plates to create dimensional indentations. 

  1. Trim

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

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. Knowing the vocabulary is one thing, but do you have the in-demand skills needed to succeed in the industry today? Find out in our article, “Cutting-Edge Graphic Design Skills Employers Are Seeking.”

Pantone is a registered trademark of Pantone LLC
Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop are registered trademarks of Adobe Inc.
Microsoft Word is a registered trademark of Microsoft Corporation.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in 2017. It has recently been updated to include information relevant to 2019.

Kirsten Slyter

Kirsten is a Content Writer at Collegis Education where she enjoys researching and writing on behalf of Rasmussen University. She understands the difference that education can make and hopes to inspire readers at every stage of their education journey.


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