A Guide to Graphic Design Terms

By Staff Writer Published on August 16, 2017

Graphic design, like any profession, has a long list of terminology and jargon that is unique to it. These are words and phrases used frequently, created because concepts unique to design needed adequate verbiage in order to be communicated.

Below, you’ll find a long list of terms that every good graphic designer should know. They help give shape and meaning to ideas relevant to every artist, so brushing up is a good idea for almost anyone who likes to engage in visual creativity. Click on a term to learn more about it!

The Big Ones

“The process of visual communication, and problem-solving using one or more of typography, photography, and illustration.” One part art and one part professional skill, it’s a creative field where visual elements and text are composed to create appealing and engaging materials in printed or electronic media. Its most common application is in business, as in the production of marketing images.

Graphic design’s mathematical cousin, information design is “the practice of presenting information in a way that fosters efficient and effective understanding of it.” It’s the “art” of displaying data and information so that it can be easily digested and utilized. Whenever graphic design principles are applied to making numbers make sense, you have information design.

Principles of Design

There are some basic principles that govern artistic design, in everything from museum pieces to advertisements. There is a little bit of disagreement in the community about which principles are most fundamental, but some of them are mainstays that keep popping up on everybody’s lists. Here are the most common and relevant ones.

These interchangeable terms refer to how well the designer has avoided chaos in the design. Ideally, designs are, well, designed. That means they are constructions with a purpose, rather than randomized nonsense. A monkey with a painter’s palette can smear color on a canvas, but that doesn’t make it a design. Neither does a computer generating a pattern.

What creates unity is all the elements of a composition working together toward an intended goal, whether that goal is to “look pretty,” convey some deep and philosophical meaning, or get a consumer to purchase a product.

Unity and harmony encompass concepts such as:

—Proximity between elements in a design

—Similarity between elements

—Continuation of elements

—Repetition of elements

—The production of a visual rhythm

Balance refers to the visual balance of shapes and elements in a design. Integral to avoiding chaotic designs and achieving unity, balance is achieved when the visual “weight” of objects in a design balance out like a scale. If, for instance, one object on one side of a design is larger and emphasized, then a large number of smaller, less significant items on the other side helps achieve balance. There are mainly three methods of achieving balance:

—Symmetrical balance, where objects on one side resemble each other in shape

—Asymmetrical balance, where objects are dissimilar but are still balanced (such as by using the techniques used in achieving unity)

—Radial balance, where objects are organized around a central focus

A lot of times in a design you may need to showcase an object (or objects) as more important than others. Hierarchy is one way to get this done. Using elements of hierarchy, you can demonstrate objects in a design as having a strict hierarchy, with some being subsidiary or subservient to others.

Some techniques include “trees” (such as those used in genealogy charts), “nests” (grouping smaller elements together within a larger element, like a border), and “stairs” (a top-down and left-right structure that clearly shows hierarchy).

Remember when you were five and the stick figures you drew had overly large heads compared to the rest of the body? That’s an issue with proportion. In design, scale and proportion are important principles if you intend to avoid having things look awkward. Sometimes, like when you’re representing data, the size of objects compared to each other is very important, as it illustrates quantifiable values. Many times, though, it’s more a matter of ensuring the design is aesthetically pleasing, and the “heads” of your objects don’t look too big for their bodies.

In either case, you’ll be considering elements such as size, ratio, and division to relate objects to each other, if you want to do it effectively.

As mentioned with hierarchy, you’ll often need to highlight objects in a design. Not every case will require you to indicate a strict organization of ideas, however. Rather than illustrating a “this-then-that” order of things, you can use dominance and emphasis to indicate the most important details in a design, regardless of its relation to other objects.

Dominance and emphasis is often used with text, for example, by using font size and color to draw attention to the words that are most important.

A lot of meaning can be injected into a design by creating a similarity between elements. Similarity helps develop unity and helps avoid chaos in the design. Similarity can be created a number of ways, whether by color, shape, size and so forth. Too much similarity, however, can create a bland and lifeless design. Variety is the spice of life, after all, so balance it with contrast.

Contrast is one of the easiest ways to achieve emphasis in a design. Creating certain objects in a design to stand out against a background of similarity is a good way to draw eyes to what’s important. Varying lightness, darkness, or texture can establish contrast. Too much contrast results in a chaotic design that lacks focus or emphasis—if everything is highlighted, nothing truly stands out. That’s why it’s best to balance contrast with similarity.

This refers to how things are lined up in a design. Keeping objects in a design aligned with each other helps to create unity and ensure that the design feels organized and well-composed. This doesn’t necessarily mean that every element has to exist along the same axis. But when objects are slightly out of alignment (as opposed to purposefully placed in relation to each other), it looks poorly laid out.

Text is the easiest example of alignment, as most of us are familiar with the buttons on a word processor that change which side the words are aligned to. There are four text alignments: left aligned, center aligned, right aligned, and justified alignment.

Movement is when the audience’s eyes naturally progress from object to object in a design. Done properly, a sense of progression in a design can be created, leading the audience from one emphasized object to another. This is usually achieved by “connecting” items in some way, often with things like lines or other shapes.

Text-based designs have a natural progression, as we have been trained to follow words from left to right, and top to bottom. Poor movement means that a viewer’s eyes are not naturally drawn from object to object and instead scan the design haphazardly (and potentially miss crucial elements).

White space, quite simply, is the section (or sections) of a design that is left blank. While a graphic design novice might assume that it’s best to fill all the space, most designs benefit from a level of simplicity. Allowing for white space keeps designs from overfilling and becoming too busy—it allows them to “breathe.” Often, a little white space is all the contrast needed to emphasize a particular object.


The art and science of using text in a design. Typography encompasses nearly all text-related design elements, from how far apart letters are spaced to whether or not they’re italicized.

The primary section of text, as opposed to things like headlines and footnotes. This is where most of the information is held, whether that’s a scientific study, a blog post, or a book. What you’re reading right now is body copy.

Unlike body type, display type is designed to attract attention, such as a headline, title, or heading.

The spacing between letters in a group. When you modify tracking, you are adjusting the space between each letter in the group, making it larger or smaller. This is different from kerning, which impacts just the spacing between individual letters.

The spacing between specific letters and words. When you modify kerning, you adjust the spacing between two letters or words, without modifying the distance between other letters.

(Pronounced like the metallic element) The spacing between lines of text, as opposed to letters or words. “Single-spaced” and “double-spaced” are leading terms.

Individual words or short lines at the beginning (the orphan) or the end (the widow) of a paragraph of text. Typically in a design, you’ll want lines of type to be similar in length. When orphans or widows are present, the contrast can be jarring.

Usually referred to by the layman as a “Font,” this determines the general look of type. Each typeface has a specific style, and each letter typed in the typeface is rendered in that style. Options include “Times New Roman” and “Arial,” to name a couple.

This determines the flavor of a typeface. Type families are typically used to draw attention to specific words or phrases and are rarely used throughout an entire body of text. Options include “bold,” “italic,” and “underline.”

The accumulation of typeface and type family. A type’s font isn’t just “Times New Roman,” but “Times New Roman italic.”

Often in the early stages of a design, the actual text that will be used will not be available yet. That’s where Lorem Ipsum comes in. It’s “dummy copy”—nonsense Latin phrases designed to simulate real text for the purpose of demonstrating how a design will look.

Typefaces like “Times New Roman” have what are called “serifs”: the little hooks and feet on the tips of all the letters. These are called “serif typefaces,” and it’s widely accepted that these make bodies of text easier to read. Typefaces that lack serifs are called “sans serif typefaces.”

The size of type being used. Usually rendered as “12 point” or “12 pt.” Font size increases with the increase of the number.


How transparent an image object is.

The amount of clarity and definition an image has. These days, the resolution can specifically refer to the number of pixels rendered on a screen (though a printed version of a digital image can also be high or low resolution). The higher the resolution, the higher the pixel count, and thus the more visual information is displayed (resulting in a clearer image).

The severity of difference between two visual objects. This includes qualities like lightness/darkness, thickness, texture, and so forth. Black text on a white background has high contrast.

The intensity of color in an image. Lower saturation on an image results in paler, less vibrant colors.

At some point after the birth of the Internet, someone figured out that if they were willing to take lots of photos of lots of different things, there would eventually be someone who’d be willing to pay to use the image, rather than hire their own photographer. That’s where stock photos come in. They are professional photographs that are made available online, at the cost of a licensing fee.

A rule very familiar to photographers, the rule of thirds states that any given image (such as one you’re preparing to capture in a photograph) should be divided into a 3×3 grid. This is done by dividing the image into three equal sections both horizontally and vertically with lines. Where the horizontal and vertical lines intersect are the best places to align (remember that term above?) the subjects of your image before capturing it.

The simple definition is a graphic that can be resized without losing its quality. The reason it can be resized is because, rather than the image being a grid of pixels, it’s composed of lines and shapes developed using mathematical functions. Those functions scale with the image, keeping their proportions and maintaining their resolution no matter how far they are stretched or condensed.

Defined as “a point moving in space.” Lines are elemental to design, as one can argue that all other shapes and objects are comprised of them. The use of lines is important in establishing movement in a design.

An object of at least two dimensions that “stands out to it due to a defined or implied boundary, or because of differences of value, color, or texture.” Basic shapes are easily identified, with circles, triangles, and squares being obvious examples.


While interaction with the tactile sense is required to actually feel a texture, an image or visual object can imply a feel by way of visual texture. An image of a tree’s bark will conjure in the mind of the viewer the sensation of touching something rough and bark-like. Texture can be applied to lines and abstract shapes as well, with things like curves, waves, and so forth.

The illusion of three-dimensional distance in a two-dimensional image. Achieved through a multitude of techniques, this is often the goal of designs such as landscape paintings where multiple layers of visual objects are used to create the feeling of distance.


The technical name for “color.” Hues are pure colors, unmodified by the addition of white, black, or gray.

Value and tone refer to the brightness of a color. A narrow definition refers to hues that have been mixed with some variation of gray, thus reducing the brightness and intensity of the color. A wider definition includes the addition of just white or just black, then encompassing the terms of “tint” and “shade.” In either case, when you have adjusted the value/tone of a hue, you have adjusted how bright it is.

A hue that has been mixed with pure white in some amount. This is where pastel colors come from, as hues that have been lightened in this way are less intense than before.

A hue that has been mixed with pure black, to some degree. This darkens, but intensifies, the hue.

A selection of colors chosen specifically for a design. When choosing a palette, you reduce the thousands of color options down to just a few, which will (ideally) coordinate well with your design, and create unity.

A palette comprised of only one hue and its associated tones, tints, and shades.

A palette comprised of a color (including hue, tones, tints, and shades) and its two neighbor colors on a color wheel.

A palette comprised of a color and the color on the opposite side of the color wheel.

A palette comprised of three colors, equally spaced apart from each other on a color wheel (such as red, yellow, and blue).

Red, Green, Blue.” The three primary colors of light, used for on-screen purposes. With RGB, colors are additive, with the combination of all colors adding to white, rather than black.

Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Key.” It’s like RGB, but for printers. It’s a subtractive model (since it uses real pigments, rather than light) which means that as more color is added, it moves from white to black.

Pantone Matching System”; a standardized numbered color system used in printing. With each color number, it is easier to identify or reference exact tones, tints, or shades of a color.

A gradient is when you shift gradually from one tone of a color to another.

And there you have it—a semi-comprehensive list of key terms used in graphic design. If this list has piqued your interest, and you’d like to know more about becoming a graphic designer, look into the School of Graphic Arts at Independence University. With online programs, getting the training you need to qualify for the job you want is easier than ever. Get in touch today.