Graphic design is a dynamic and ever-evolving field, driven by innovation and creativity. It’s a realm where visuals, ideas, and messages converge to create impactful and compelling narratives. However, for those new to the world of graphic design, the array of terminologies and jargon used by designers can seem overwhelming. This guide serves as an introduction to some of the most important terms in the world of graphic design, providing a helpful reference for beginners and a useful refresher for more seasoned designers.
From basic principles of design to the more technical aspects, understanding graphic design terms not only helps in learning the craft but also improves communication within a team or with clients. With a solid understanding of these terms, you’ll find it easier to discuss and critique designs, give and receive feedback, and articulate your creative ideas more effectively.
So, whether you’re an aspiring designer looking to navigate this exciting field, a business owner working with designers, or simply someone interested in understanding more about graphic design, this guide to 30 essential graphic design terms will offer invaluable insights.
Each term is explained in detail, offering a comprehensive overview of its relevance and application in the day-to-day world of graphic design.
Table of Contents
- Raster Images
- Vector Images
- White Space
- Aspect Ratio
RGB stands for Red, Green, and Blue, the primary colors of light. In digital design, colors are often represented as a combination of these three hues. RGB is the color model used for on-screen or digital designs as screens emit light. When all RGB colors are mixed together, they create pure white.
Different combinations can produce a vast range of other colors. Understanding the RGB color model is essential for anyone working in any digital design medium, including graphic design, digital art, web design, and more.
CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key (Black). Unlike RGB, which is used for digital screens, CMYK is the color model used in print design. It’s called a subtractive model because the printed ink reduces the light that would otherwise be reflected.
The colors are mixed during the printing process, which can lead to a wider range of colors than if the colors were pre-mixed. A deep understanding of the CMYK process can help graphic designers ensure the colors they use in their designs will appear as expected when printed.
PMS, or the Pantone Matching System, is a standardized color reproduction system. By standardizing the colors, different manufacturers can refer to the Pantone system to ensure colors match without direct contact with one another.
This is especially useful for brand consistency across different print materials. Each Pantone shade is given a specific number, making it easy for designers and manufacturers to communicate exactly which colors are to be used on a project.
Pixels are the smallest unit of a digital image or display. Each pixel is a tiny square that emits a certain amount of light and color. In the context of graphic design, pixels are important when creating digital images or elements, as the number of pixels can directly impact the quality of an image.
High-resolution images contain more pixels, which result in a sharper and clearer image, particularly when viewed at a close distance. However, higher resolution images also take up more storage space. Understanding pixels allows designers to balance between image quality and file size.
In contrast to pixel-based raster images, vector graphics are based on mathematical equations and are made up of points, lines, and curves. This means that they can be scaled indefinitely without any loss of quality or resolution, making them ideal for logos, icons, and other designs that need to be displayed at various sizes.
Because of their scalability, vector graphics are essential for any kind of design work that may need to be resized. They’re typically created using software like Adobe Illustrator, which provides tools for creating and manipulating these mathematical paths.
Raster graphics, also known as bitmap graphics, are made up of a grid of individual pixels. Each pixel holds color information for the image. Raster graphics are great for complex images that have a lot of detail and color variation, like photographs.
However, the main disadvantage of raster graphics is that they don’t scale well. If a raster image is enlarged too much, the individual pixels become visible, resulting in a pixelated and blurry image. Therefore, when working with raster images, graphic designers need to consider the final size of the image right from the start.
DPI stands for Dots Per Inch and is a measure of spatial printing or video dot density. It’s a crucial term in both digital and print design as it directly impacts the quality of the output. The higher the DPI, the better the resolution and detail in the final printed output.
However, higher DPI also means larger file sizes, so designers need to strike a balance between quality and efficiency. When creating graphics for print, a DPI of 300 is usually recommended. For web graphics, where high resolution is less important and smaller file sizes are preferred, a DPI of 72 is standard.
Hex refers to a hexadecimal color code, which is a six-digit combination of numbers and letters defined by its mix of red, green, and blue (RGB). The first two digits represent the red component, the middle two green, and the last two blue. The values range from 00 to FF (in hexadecimal base).
Hexadecimal color codes are predominantly used in web design, as they’re understood by all browsers. For example, white is represented as #FFFFFF, black as #000000, and the full range of colors can be represented in this system. This standardization helps ensure colors are consistent across digital platforms.
Opacity refers to the degree to which light is allowed to travel through an object. In graphic design, the opacity level of an element can be adjusted to create different effects. A lower opacity means that the object is more transparent and that objects beneath it are more visible.
Manipulating opacity is common in layer-based design software like Photoshop. It can be used to overlay text on an image, create watermarks, or even to build up complex effects using multiple layers. Understanding and controlling opacity is a crucial skill in creating visually appealing designs.
Kerning refers to the adjustment of space between two individual letters or characters. The goal of kerning is to achieve a balanced and proportional spacing for better readability and aesthetics. It’s especially important in typography and logo design, where small adjustments can make a big difference in the overall appearance and readability.
Automated kerning options in design software often do a good job, but there are times when manual adjustment is needed. Particularly with larger sizes or unique font combinations, individual kerning adjustments can make a noticeable difference to the overall presentation of a design.
Leading is a typography term that refers to the space between lines of text. It originates from the days of metal type, when thin strips of lead were used to create vertical spacing. Leading is important for readability – too little can make text dense and difficult to read, while too much can disconnect the lines of text.
Good leading makes your text legible and guides the reader’s eye through the lines. It’s often calculated based on type size and line length to achieve optimal reading comfort. For instance, if your type size is 12 points, a good starting point for your leading would be 14 points.
Tracking, sometimes called letter-spacing, is the adjustment of the space for groups of letters and entire blocks of text. Unlike kerning, which adjusts space between individual letter pairs, tracking applies to a broader range of text. It impacts the overall character density of the copy.
Proper tracking ensures optimal readability and aesthetic balance. Too tight tracking may cause letters to overlap, making the text hard to read, while too loose tracking can disrupt the reader’s flow and make the text appear disjointed. Many typography experts consider tracking an essential tool for effective type setting.
A mockup is a full-scale model used for design evaluation, demonstration, or promotion. It’s used to visualize how the final design will look in a real-life context, such as how a website will look on a computer screen or how a product package will look on a retail shelf.
Mockups can help clients, design teams, and stakeholders understand a design better, as they provide context and showcase functionality. They are usually created using digital tools, and there are numerous online resources available for generating mockups for various purposes and mediums.
A gradient is a gradual blend between two or more colors or between shades of the same color. Gradients can be linear (blending from one color to another along a line), radial (blending in a circular or elliptical pattern), or in a freeform path.
Gradients are often used to add depth, volume, and visual interest to flat designs. They can be used subtly to give a design a more natural, organic feel or dramatically for a bold, modern look. Digital design tools offer a range of options for creating and customizing gradients.
Bleed is a term used in print design to refer to any design or elements that extend beyond the print boundaries. In other words, the bleed is the part of the design that will be trimmed off after printing. The purpose of the bleed is to ensure that no unprinted edges occur in the final trimmed document.
In general, a bleed of 1/8 inch or 3mm is used to accommodate for small shifts during printing and trimming. When preparing a design for print, it’s important to extend the design into the bleed area to prevent any white edges in the final print.
Contrast is a key principle in graphic design and refers to the difference between elements in a design. These elements can include color, size, shape, and type. By creating contrast, a designer can emphasize or highlight key elements in a design.
Contrast creates visual interest and directs the viewer’s attention. It can be used to create a focal point, organize information, or add visual intrigue. For instance, a headline in a large, bold font creates contrast with the body text, helping to draw the viewer’s attention.
17. Negative Space
Negative space, also known as white space, is the unmarked or empty areas between or within the elements of a design. Despite its name, negative space isn’t necessarily white; it refers to any area not occupied by a design element.
Negative space is an important component of a balanced composition. It gives the design elements room to breathe, creating balance and helping guide the viewer’s eye through the design. It can also be used creatively to form shapes and convey additional meaning, as seen in many well-known logos.
18. Color Wheel
The color wheel is a circular diagram of colors arranged by their chromatic relationship. It is a useful tool for understanding color theory and creating harmonious color combinations. The color wheel consists of primary colors (red, yellow, and blue), secondary colors (created by mixing primary colors), and tertiary colors (created by mixing primary and secondary colors).
Using the color wheel, designers can create a variety of color schemes, such as complementary (colors opposite each other), analogous (colors next to each other), or triadic (three colors evenly spaced). Understanding the color wheel and its principles can significantly improve a designer’s work.
Composition refers to the arrangement of elements within a design. It’s about how the elements of a design interact with each other and the space around them. A well-composed design leads the viewer’s eye through the piece in a way that makes sense and reinforces the message or mood.
In graphic design, there are many rules and guidelines for creating effective compositions, such as the Rule of Thirds or the Golden Ratio. However, these rules are often broken or adapted to suit the designer’s purpose. An understanding of composition is essential for creating effective, compelling designs.
A pixel, short for “picture element,” is the smallest basic unit of programmable color on a digital display. Pixels are tiny squares that make up an image or display. When viewed from a distance, these squares merge into a clear image.
Understanding pixels is crucial for digital designers because the pixel count, or pixel density, can significantly impact the quality of a design. Low pixel density leads to pixelation, where individual pixels are visible to the naked eye, causing the image to appear blocky or blurry. High pixel density creates crisper, more detailed images.
Resolution refers to the amount of detail an image holds and is typically measured in pixels per inch (PPI) or dots per inch (DPI) in the case of print output. A higher resolution means more image detail. In the digital world, resolution can also refer to the number of pixels displayed on a screen, commonly referred to as screen resolution.
Designers must consider resolution in their work, especially when designing for different mediums. An image that looks crisp on a website may look blurry when printed, or vice versa. For this reason, understanding and properly applying resolution is crucial for producing high-quality design work.
Hierarchy in graphic design refers to the arrangement of elements in a way that implies importance. It’s a visual technique that organizes information or elements to guide the viewer’s eye to the most important parts of the design first.
Designers create hierarchy using scale, color, contrast, and spatial arrangements, among other techniques. A clear hierarchy helps viewers navigate the design more intuitively and digest information more easily. Whether it’s a website, a poster, or a brochure, effective use of hierarchy is essential for any successful design.
A grid is a framework of intersecting vertical and horizontal lines used to structure content in a design. Grids create consistency, help to align elements, and provide a basic structure for a design layout.
Grids can be simple, with just a few columns for basic alignment, or complex, with multiple columns and rows for intricate designs. They can be visible (as in a spreadsheet) or invisible (used for layout purposes only). The use of grids is a fundamental part of many design disciplines, including graphic design, web design, and industrial design.
Typography refers to the art and technique of arranging type to make written language legible, readable, and visually appealing. It involves selecting typefaces, point sizes, line lengths, line-spacing, and letter-spacing, and adjusting the space between pairs of letters.
Good typography enhances the reading experience and reflects on the overall quality of the design. It’s a critical aspect of graphic design, and understanding and skillfully applying typography principles can greatly improve a piece of design work.
A vector is a type of digital image created using mathematical formulas. This allows the image to be scaled up or down without losing quality. Vectors are typically used for logos, icons, and other designs that need to be resized frequently.
Unlike raster images, which are made up of pixels, vectors consist of paths, each with a mathematical formula (vector) that determines the path’s direction and length. This makes vector images resolution-independent. Most graphic design software allows designers to create and manipulate vector images.
Raster images, also known as bitmap images, are made up of a grid of pixels where each pixel represents a different color within the image. Raster images are resolution-dependent – they can’t be scaled up without losing quality. When these images are enlarged, the pixels are stretched, making the image appear blurry or pixelated.
Raster graphics are best used for complex, multi-colored designs, such as photographs. Common raster file formats include JPEG, PNG, GIF, and TIFF. Unlike vectors, editing raster files requires a raster-based software such as Adobe Photoshop.
27. Color Spectrum
The color spectrum refers to the full range of colors that can be seen by the human eye, represented as a continuous image in graphic design. It’s typically visualized as a circular wheel or linear gradient going from red to violet, including all the colors in between.
Designers use the color spectrum as a guide for combining colors and creating palettes. The concept of the color spectrum is also closely tied to the RGB (red, green, blue) color model used in digital design, where colors are created by combining red, green, and blue light at various intensities.
28. Print vs. Digital Design
Print and digital design are two distinct areas within the field of graphic design. Print design is a form of graphic design that involves creating artwork and layouts that will be printed on physical surfaces, such as paper, cardboard, etc. Examples include brochures, posters, packaging, and business cards.
Digital design, on the other hand, involves creating graphics and layouts to be displayed on digital platforms, such as websites, mobile apps, digital advertising, etc. Although there’s overlap in the principles and skills required, each area has its own specific considerations and best practices, such as resolution and color modes.
29. Visual Identity
Visual identity refers to the visual elements that represent a company, product, or brand. It’s a subset of brand identity and includes logos, typography, colors, packaging, and imagery. The visual identity is used across all mediums and touchpoints to represent the brand consistently.
Creating a visual identity is a key part of branding. It involves defining the visual elements that will represent the brand, and how they’ll be applied across different mediums. A strong visual identity can help a brand stand out, inspire trust, and create a memorable impression on its audience.
30. Mood Board
A mood board is a type of visual presentation or collage consisting of images, text, and samples of objects in a composition. It’s used as a tool in design processes to convey a general idea or feel of a design concept. Mood boards help to visualize ideas, set the mood, and provide inspiration for a project.
Mood boards can be created physically with printed elements, or digitally using graphic design software. They’re often used at the beginning of a project to establish the visual direction of the work. This can be especially helpful when communicating a design idea to a client or team.