30 Graphic Design Terms for Non-graphic Designers

Rangan Das

October 20, 2022

As you dive into the world of graphic design, it will become increasingly important to speak the language to communicate ideas effectively. Here's a glossary of terms every designer needs to know.

Almost everyone has tried their hand at graphic design at some point in time. While it may not be necessary to know how to handle professional programs like Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop, you can still improve your understanding of design tools and elements by knowing certain graphic design terms. 

Improving your graphic design vocabulary will also allow you to communicate design ideas better with your design team. Even if you still struggle with Microsoft Paint, knowing certain graphic design terminologies can help you create better branding for your product. 

Here are the top 30 graphic design words that you must know.

1. Alignment

Alignment refers to the positioning of images or text against an imaginary margin. For example, this text is aligned with the left margin of the page.

An example of left, center, and right aligned content.

2. Analogous

A set of colors that are close to each other on the color wheel. As they add some diversity while remaining within the same general spectrum, they are frequently utilized to give some variety to a monochrome design. 

Source: What is an Analogous Color Scheme? Analogous Color Scheme Room Ideas (elledecor.com)

3. Ascender/Descender

Ascender and descender refer to elements of text glyphs. The x-height of a letter is known as the height of an ‘x’ in lowercase. Anything that rises above this point is referred to as an ascender, such as the top of the letter ‘t.’ Any element that is lower than this height is known as a descender, such as the bottom of the letter ‘p.’

4. Aspect ratio

A simple quantitative relationship between its width and its height is the aspect ratio. Common media types often define aspect ratios. A typical aspect ratio for smartphones, for instance, is 16:9, while a typical aspect ratio for film, DSLR, or mirrorless cameras is 3:2.

See the source image
Source: https://phlearn.com/magazine/how-to-know-which-aspect-ratio-to-use-in-your-photography/

5. Bleed

Bleed is the amount of ink intended to cross the margin, that is, “bleeds” past it. Bleed is necessary since it assures that, if the cuts are not exact, the design will not be trimmed off and won't have an unattractive blank border.

See the source image
Source: https://zpa.com.au/education/bleed-margin/

6. CMYK

Cyan, magenta, yellow, and black, or CMYK, is the color space that forms the foundation of all print-related color schemes. Another phrase on this list, RGB, is a similar color scheme. Like RGB, a variety of colors can be produced by mixing these colors in various ratios.

CMYKOG or Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black, Orange, and Green refers to the color space used by 6-color printers, often known as Hexachrome printers. A six-color printer can print much more, especially if it is set up as CMYKOG. Presently, CMYKOG is discontinued, but 6-color printing with other colors is commercially available. A six-color printer can print the original six colors listed, as well as a wide variety of others because it has two more base colors to mix with.  

A Canon printer that uses additional gray ink and an additional shade of red to print photos with richer colors. Source: Canon 

7. Color theory

Ideas concerning the optimum applications of color are part of color theory. There are numerous theories on colors that can be used to better comprehend color combinations and psychological effects.

8. Complementary

Due to their striking contrast, complementary hues are also referred to as opposing colors. Complementary colors combine to create an intermediate hue between white and black. Red and green are complementary hues, for instance.

9. Debossing or embossing

The methods of debossing and embossing are similar, yet they are opposites. To produce a 3D effect, embossing raises the artwork or text off the page. The reverse of embossing, which forces the design or text down to make it seem sunken into the page, is debossing.

See the source image
Source: What's the difference between Embossed and Debossed? - Ashwyk Print Services

10. DPI and PPI

DPI and PPI are units of image resolution on the screen or print. The terms "pixels per inch" (PPI) and "dots per inch" (DPI) refer to the number of pixels or dots that make up an inch. The better the resolution of the work, the higher the number. 

11. Foiling

Foiling is a design technique employed on printed works. To give the paper a shiny appearance, a thin metal foil is used and pressed into the surface. You can choose from several metals and colors.

12. Font

The term font describes the various typeface variations. Times New Roman Bold and Times New Roman 10 pt., for instance, are two different fonts based on the text size. The word “typeface,” which is also listed here, is frequently confused with the term “font.” A Font Finder tool can help list the fonts used in a document. 

13. Golden ratio

The golden ratio is a mathematical ratio with a value of 1.618 that occurs naturally and has had a significant impact on design. The golden ratio can be used in art and design to produce well-balanced pieces that flow naturally. The golden ratio and its simplified variations are still utilized in graphic design today even though they are a classic concept. The Rule of Thirds — which is also defined on this list — is a condensed version of the golden ratio.

See the source image
Source: The golden ratio: reddit.com

14. Gradient

A gradient is a progressive change from one color to another. Any two hues, or more than two, can be used in a gradient. Additionally, gradients can alter radially, diagonally, along the boundaries of a predetermined boundary, or on a fixed line.

Source: https://dribbble.com/shots/13662178-Gradients

15. Hex code

A hex code is a system of defining colors using the hexadecimal number system. There are various forms, including HTML and CSS, that use these six-digit codes. They are connected to RGB, another word on this list. In a hex code, the first two digits indicate the proportion of red in a color, the following two indicate the proportion of green, and the final two indicate the proportion of blue.

A screenshot of Microsoft Powertoys Color Picker module showing Hex code of a shade of blue.

16. Hierarchy

Graphic design and other professions use the term hierarchy to describe the idea that some aspects are more significant than others. In graphic design, visual hierarchy is shown by making certain text bolder and larger than other text or by enlarging some images over other, less significant ones. It is a crucial factor to consider in a project because it has significant effects on compositions. Users may immediately take crucial pieces of information away from a successful hierarchy, which makes it essential to good UI/UX design. 

17. Hue

A hue refers to a pure color. Primary (red, yellow, and blue) and secondary colors are included in the hues (orange, green, and violet). Because tertiary colors are made by combining non-primary colors, they are not hues. 

Shade, tint, and tone are other words on this list that relate to hue. Adding something to color allows for the creation of several of these other words. Any specific color can be defined using its Hue, Saturation, and Luminance (HSL). Saturation describes how vibrant the hue is whereas luminance describes how bright or dark the hue is. 

18. Kerning

Kerning is a typography term that refers to the spacing between two characters. For example, due to their forms, the letters "A" and "V" typically seem too far apart. The kerning between the letters "A" and "V" was lowered in the sample on the right, but the remainder of the text was left alone. Even if the letter spacing is not exact, the goal of kerning is to make the letters look right.

See the source image
Kerning vs Tracking. Source: https://www.logoground.com/tracking-kerning.php

19. Leading

In typography, the vertical space between two lines of text is referred to as leading.

See the source image
Text with different leading values. Source: https://www.schoolofmotion.com/blog/fonts-typefaces-typography-for-motion-design

20. Mock-up

A mock-up is a draft of a design or piece of art that aids in its comprehension by others. You can use printed or digital mockups. A mock-up is also known as a prototype.

A digital 3D mockup of a packaging design on Artwork Flow.

21. Mood board

A mood board is a collage of ideas, textures, hues, or samples. Mood boards serve as a useful source for presentations that outline the characteristics of a project before it is finished.

clear drinking glass on white printer paper
An example of a mood board. Photo by Karin Scholte on Unsplash

22. Overprint

In overprinting, colors are printed on top of one another to provide a layered appearance. For instance, crimson is produced when magenta is printed over yellow. The result of shifting the two original prints is an effect where the red is visible in the overlap and the yellow and magenta are seen in the places where only one color is printed.

10 Great Examples of Overprint Design (and how to do it).
Source: 10 Great Examples of Overprint Design (and how to do it). (edgee.net)

23. Raster graphics

Raster graphics are images that are represented as a two-dimensional pixel grid. In raster graphics, the visual information is stored as a bitmap or a matrix of pixel values which can be displayed on screens or images. 

Common raster graphics file formats include JPEG, BMP, or PNG. The photographs you take on your phone are raster graphics. Raster graphics files often suffer from pixelation when enlarged. Microsoft Paint, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Lightroom, Krita, and GIMP are popular raster graphics editors. 

Graphical user interfaceDescription automatically generated
An example of a raster image. Source: RGB-raster-image - Raster graphics - Wikipedia

24. Resolution

An image's resolution determines its quality. How many units make up a picture defines its resolution, which is typically expressed in DPI or PPI, words that are also explained in this list. Images with higher resolution are of higher quality than those with lesser resolution. The latter will seem fuzzy or pixelated.

25. RGB

RGB is a color model for displays, where colors are created using emitted light and not reflected light. The three colors can be blended to produce a wide range of hues. Each of the three colors in RGB has a code from 0 to 255. You can extract RGB values of an element from a screen using color extractor tools.

26. Serif/Sans Serif

A serif is an added ornamentation at the end of a letter that resembles a foot or cap. Serif typefaces tend to be more legible than sans serif and are frequently employed in books or other printed works. 

Text without serifs is simply referred to as sans serif. 

See the source image
Source: Serif vs. Sans Serif Fonts (newenglandrepro.com)

27. Tracking

The typography term "tracking" is extremely like the term "kerning," which is also on this list. Similar to kerning, it describes the distance between letters in a word rather than just a single letter.

28. Triadic

Three hues that are uniformly spaced apart on the color wheel are referred to as triadic colors. When colors are grouped, there is frequently some hierarchy since one color is utilized more frequently while the other two are employed to create contrast. Examples of triadic hues include the combination of red, cyan, and green.

Illustration of triadic color scheme wheel
Source: https://www.color-meanings.com/triadic-colors/

29. Vector graphics

Vector graphics are visuals and images that are described with shapes and their properties. Shapes, curves, polygons, or lines are drawn on the Cartesian plane every time the image is displayed. This allows the image to preserve its fidelity every time it is scaled. 

Logos are great examples of vector graphics. A popular vector graphics file format is SVG or Scalable Vector Graphics. Adobe Illustrator, Inkscape, and CorelDRAW are popular vector graphics editing programs. 

LogoDescription automatically generated
Example showing a comparison of vector graphics and raster graphics upon magnification. Source: Vector graphics - Wikipedia

30. White space or negative space

The space surrounding a graphic or text element is referred to as white space or negative space. Although it's frequently used to refer to a substantial blank space in a design, it also covers minor gaps between text or visual elements. Sometimes designers will employ negative space to express subtle messages or meanings, or to trick the observer into perceiving different forms, symbols, and characters.

Closing thoughts

We hope this list helps you improve your graphic design vocabulary. To see how your design would look on your product packaging and other marketing creatives, get a free demo of Artwork Flow

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