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A Guide to Graphic Design Terms


Updated By Josh Weekes on April 29, 2020

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

THE BIG ONES

Graphic Design:

The process of visual communication and problem-solving using one or more of typography, photography, and illustration. One part art, one part professional skill, it’s a creative field where visual elements and text are combined 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.

Information Design:

Graphic design’s mathematical cousin, information design, is the practice of presenting information in a way that fosters the 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.

Unity/Harmony:

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

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 balances 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

Hierarchy

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).

Scale/Proportion

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.

Dominance/Emphasis

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

Similarity

A lot of meaning can be injected into a design by creating a similarity between elements. Similarity helps develop unity and 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

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.

Repetition:

Repetition is a principle designers use to tie an image together into one coherent piece. This may be achieved by repeating font styles, icons, color schemes, and more.

Alignment

This refers to how things are lined up in a design. Keeping objects aligned with each other in a design 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.

Proximity:

Proximity is a design principle that allows designers to create relationships between objects. When objects are close in proximity, it shows they are related or connected in some way. Objects that are distant in proximity are not as closely related.

Movement

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 to objects and instead scan the design haphazardly (and potentially miss crucial elements).

White Space

White space, quite simply, is the section or sections of a design that are 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.

Focal Points

Focal points are specific areas of a design intended to draw the eye of the viewer and capture their attention. Similar to a comma in a sentence, focal points give the eye a place to rest when looking at the design. They’re an important element of any design piece, and if missing, the work may feel chaotic or boring.

TYPOGRAPHY-SPECIFIC ELEMENTS

Typography:

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.

Body Copy:

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.

Display Type:

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

Tracking:

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 and words.

Kerning:

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.

Leading:

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

Orphans and Widows:

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.

Typeface:

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.

Font Families:

This determines the flavor of a typeface. Type families share the same design characteristics, but have slight variations in weight, size, width, kerning and so on.

Font:

In his authoritative book, “The Elements of Typographic Style," Robert Bringhurst defines font as “a set of sorts or glyphs” In relation to phototype, or the types of characters we use in digital work, “the font is the glyph palette itself or the digital information encoding it.” We may think of it as the specific characteristic style of the glyphs that make up the type characters we use in our designs. Font and type have begun to be used more interchangeably in recent years, but in reality, there are slight differences between the two.

Font Weight:

A font weight primarily determines how thick the characters are in any given typeface.

Font Style:

A typeface can come in a variety of styles, that while they share the characteristics of the parent font, such as the shape of aperture, horizontal, and vertical movement, etc., have subtle differences, such as thickness, that differentiate the style from the parent font in a visually obvious way. Popular font styles include bold, italic, and roman. This is known as the font style.

Lorem Ipsum:

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”— Latin phrases designed to simulate real text for the purpose of demonstrating how a design will look once the actual copy is available. The text is believed to be a scrambled version of Cicero’s famous philosophical work, “De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum.”

Serif/Sans Serif Typeface:

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.”

Font Size:

The size of type being used; as an example, these are usually rendered as “12 point” or “12 pt.” Font size increases with the increase of the number.

IMAGE-SPECIFIC ELEMENTS

Opacity:

How transparent an image object is.

Resolution:

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). As a rule, printed material needs a higher resolution than digital work. The most common resolutions include 72 dpi for digital and 300 dpi for print.

Contrast:

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.

Saturation:

The intensity of color in an image. Lower saturation on an image results in paler, less vibrant colors. This would be good to demonstrate with an image.

Stock Photo:

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, or risk potential quality issues when shooting it themselves. That’s where stock photos come in. They are professional or semi-professional photographs that are made available online for the cost of a licensing fee.

Rule of Thirds:

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.

Vector Image:

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. This type of image is very convenient for print work, which may need to be adjusted by the printer.

Line:

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.

Shape:

An object of at least two dimensions that “stands out ... 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.

Texture:

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. This can also be done in print, where one type of printing treatment to the surface can be smooth and shiny, while another is nonreflective. This provides a subtle contrast between elements.

Space:

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.

Dots Per Inch:

Dots per inch, or DPI, is the number of individual dots that can be placed in a line within a 1-inch span. This tool is used to measure the resolution of an image on the display screen and in print.

Horizontal and Vertical Alignment:

Horizontal and vertical alignment is one element of balanced graphic design. A design is horizontally and vertically aligned when they are centered on a horizontal and vertical axis.

CHARACTERISTICS OF COLOR

Hue:

The technical name for colors created by pigment. Hues are the purest colors, unmodified by the addition of white, black, or gray.

Value/Tone:

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.

Tint:

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.

Shade:

A hue that has been mixed with pure black in some amount. If tinted colors have been lightened, shaded colors have been darkened.

Palette:

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

Monochrome:

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

Analogous:

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

Complementary:

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

Triadic:

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

Split-complementary

A palette composed of three colors, a primary color, and the two colors directly next to the primary colors complimentary color on the color wheel.

Tetradic

A color scheme using four colors, including two sets of primary colors. This results in a rectangle when viewed on the color wheel.

Color Model:

There are two primary color models: additive and subtractive. The additive color model is how light is mixed, while the subtractive color model is for pigment. Many color models are specific to a certain type of job. For example, RGB, a version of additive color, is used for digital designs, while CMYK, Pantone, and HSI, three popular subtractive models, are used for print.

RGB:

You may not have realized it, but when you were young and were taught that the primary colors are red, yellow, and blue, you were being taught half- truths. Light has its own set of primary colors: red, green, and blue. These are the colors indicated in the RGB acronym. These three primary colors of light are used in any light-based display such as monitors, televisions, and so on.

With RGB, colors are additive, with the combination of all colors adding to white, rather than black. Black is achieved by a complete lack of light.

CMYK:

“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 (PMS):

“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.

Gradient:

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

Warm Colors:

The term “warm colors” refers to one section of the color wheel. The colors in this section include red, yellow, and orange and are reminiscent of fire, the sun, or a volcano. Designs using warm colors can project positivity, playfulness, and joy. Warm colors are also energetic, friendly, and appealing. These colors can overpower a design if used too much, so they should be paired with neutrals or cool colors to create balance.

Cool Colors:

Cool colors are the shades opposite of warm colors on the color wheel. These colors range from blue and green to purple, and are reminiscent of sky and water. Cool colors create a relaxing feeling. When used in design, they make the viewer feel at ease and at peace.

Color Theory:

Color theory is the combining of certain colors to convey to the viewer the intended message in design. Interior designers and fashion designers also employ color theory to communicate with an audience. Colors can be combined to form many different color schemes.

Color Wheel:

The color wheel is a visual representation of colors arranged in a circle to show their relationship to one another. The color wheel presents primary hues of red, yellow, and blue in three quadrants of the circle, lying an equal distance from one another. Between these colors lie secondary and tertiary colors, including purple, pink, orange, and so on. The color wheel is used in color theory and to plan visually appealing color schemes.

File Formats:

Files can be saved in a variety of formats. Some file formats are universal and can be opened using the operating program of any computer, such as a PDF, or portable document format. Others are specific to a certain program — for example, Adobe Illustrator files are known as AI files.

Common File Formats

JPG – JPG, or joint photographic experts group file, is another common format used to compress an image. These files often vary in resolution and do not support transparent backgrounds.

GIF - GIF, or graphics interchange format file, can support a transparent background, and is a popular format for websites and email exchanges.

SVG – A graphics format that describes images using XML, and primarily developed for use on the web.

AI – AI is the native file type of Adobe Illustrator

PSD – The native file type of Adobe Photoshop

INDD – The native file type of Adobe InDesign

User Experience vs. User Interface

User experience and user interface are terms that are often used by members of the design community. These terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but they actually differ considerably. User experience is the designing of a product to make it easier for customers to use, and involves studying the user and the way they actually use a given design and designing the product to match the user’s methods. User interface is the design of the look and feel of a digital product interface. While user experience encapsulates the entire design of the product, user interface is more focused on the aesthetics of the interface and doesn’t necessarily involve research or testing.

Learn More about Graphic Arts

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, request more info about 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.

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