Graphic design terms explained

Graphic design terms explained

Graphic design isn’t just a profession, it’s also a language. If you’re not up to scratch with some graphic design terms, then a conversation with a designer can be bewildering.

Don’t fret, we’ve put together this list of design terms to help you make sense of the jargon and be talking the (designer) talk in no time. This dictionary of sorts is for designers and non-designers alike. This list will help you make sense of any of the graphic design terminology you might not be able to put your finger on.


Alignment is the way that the different elements in a design are arranged. In typography alignment is the setting of text relative to a column, tab or page. Misaligned elements are very noticeable.


That little bit extra – the bleed is a printing term that refers to the edge of the sheet that will be trimmed off. The bleed is the artwork or background colour that extends in to this area, in case the cut made to the design or sheet isn’t exact. It’s ensures that none of the design is accidentally cut off.

Brand Identity

The visual version of a brand. The brand identity consists of everything that relates to the brand—logos, typefaces, colour palettes, slogans, tone of voice, website, packaging and other marketing material. When designers talk about ‘branding’, it usually involves developing all aspects of the brand identity.

Centre Aligned

When text is aligned to the centre of a text frame, with the rag on the left and right sides of the text frame.


RGB’s printing brother, CMYK, is the colour mode which should be used when designing for print. The four colours in the name stand for, Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Key (Black). Similarly to RGB, these four colours can be combined in lots of different ways to produce a majority of colours in print—though, unlike RGB, these colours are subtractive so get darker as they are combined. Key/black is added on top of the other three because mixing them will never produce a pure black.

Complementary Colors

Colours that are opposite each other on the colour wheel are complementary colours (example: red and green).


Contrast is the arrangement of opposite elements on a page. In other words, when two things on a page are different. This can be light vs. dark colours, smooth vs. rough textures, text colour vs. background colour. Contrast creates areas of visual interest or even drama within a design.

Crop Marks

Also known as trim marks, crop marks are specific marks that indicate to a printer where to trim the paper. They kind of look like two lines crossing with a target. They’re essential when designing for print and make it much easier to communicate with the printers.

Drop Shadow

In graphic design and computer graphics, a drop shadow is a visual effect consisting of a drawing element which looks like the shadow of an object. It gives the impression that the object is raised above the objects behind it.

Embossing & Debossing

Embossing and its counterpart debossing are print finishing processes that involve creating dimensional relief images in to a piece of paper or card. The practice uses a printing press to, in the case of embossing, lift the design into the material or, in the case of debossing, sunk the design into the material.


Some brands use gradients in their brand identities. The above gradient might remind you of instagram.

Gradients are a gradual change of colour or shade. For instance a red slowly fading into an orange – or a colour gradually fading into transparency. There are two types of gradients, axial/linear or radial, and both show the range of different shades and hues.


Greyscale is a colour palette that only uses black, white and different shades of grey. The most obvious examples of greyscale are black and white films or photographs. Greyscale can also be used in design for many different reasons. From evoking nostalgia to helping you to learn how to design better with colour.


We can’t stress enough how important grids are to designers! Grids are an underlying system of horizontal and vertical columns and guides used to provide structure, consistency, accuracy. They also make a designer’s life a whole lot easier.


Though designers will usually find their colours using the aforementioned RGB or CMYK, hex is still an important term to know. Hex is a six digit code used to represent a colour. For example, The Simpsons’ yellow has the hex code FCD901. Hex codes are found alongside RGB and CMYK in a lot of design applications, but are most often used in HTML and CSS web design.


Hierarchy creates organisation and direction in a design—it helps to give order to the text elements. Though it may not be immediately obvious to someone not in the know, you’ll definitely have seen hierarchy in action in pretty much anything you have read. It makes text more understandable and easier to read.


Icons are something we all see practically every day. They are used to represent objects or actions. One of the most common examples of an icon is a magnifying glass. It indicates a search and is used on Google and countless other websites. Icons are used across a wide spectrum of industries—from supermarkets to the Olympics. Just make sure they’re clear and not going to cause any confusion!


The term “infographic” is the combination of the words “information” and “graphic.” Infographics help communicate complex and detailed information in an easily digestible, visual format. An infographic is a collection of imagery, data visualisations like pie charts and bar graphs, and minimal text that gives an easy-to-understand overview of a topic. Infographics use striking, engaging visuals to communicate information quickly and clearly.


Kern is the space between two specific letters or characters, and the process of adjusting the space between letters or characters. Kerning can increase the legibility of a word or an entire block of text. It helps to create proportional and balanced typography and, in turn, better looking typography.


Pronounced ‘ledding’, leading is graphic design jargon for ‘line-spacing’. It refers to the space between two baselines of text. The larger the leading, the more space between the text giving it more room to breathe and, generally, making it look nicer. Bonus fact: the term originates from the strips of lead in typewriters used to spread the lines out evenly.


A mock-up is a realistic, normally 3D representation of a design, used to demonstrate how a design will look in the real world. There’s mock-ups for everything from tote bags to iPads. They show how an entire campaign or brand roll-out would look.


The starting point for a lot of designers, a moodboard is a way for designers to collect together lots of visual references for a new design project—these can be photos, images or typography. Moodboards develop the project’s aesthetic, for inspiration or to help communicate a specific idea or concept.


Opacity enables us to make an element of a design transparent. The lower the opacity, the more transparent an element is. For example, 100% opacity means an object is solid.


A palette is the colour scheme for a specific design or brand – making up part of a brand’s style guide. A palette is chosen so that the colours in it work harmoniously together and help make a design as successful as possible. The term comes from an artists’ palette, which is a board or slab where artists would lay and mix different paint colours.


Pantone swatch book

The Pantone Matching System (PMS) is a standardised colour scheme used for printing, in addition to graphic design, it is used in a number of other industries including product and fashion design and manufacturing. Each colour has it’s own individual number and name—this year’s Pantone Colour of the Year is Viva Magenta which has the Pantone number 18-1750. The numbers make reproducing and referencing colours super easy.


The two measurements used to measure the resolution (see below). PPI stands for pixels per inch whilst DPI stands for dots per inch. They refer to the amount of pixels or dots, respectively, that can be placed in a line across one linear inch. PPI describes the resolution of a digital image and DPI describes the amount of ink dots per inch in a printed image. Pixels per inch can also affect the print size and quality of a design, but DPI has no affect on a digital design.


The term resolution refers to the number of units, measured in either DPI or PPI, that occupy a linear inch an image, both on screen and in print. Resolution denotes the quality of an image. Generally the higher the resolution, the better the quality of the image. You can tell if the resolution is too low as the image will appear blurry or pixelated.


RGB stands for Red Green Blue, and is the colour mode which should be used when designing for digital applications. The three colours, Red, Green and Blue, can be combined in different proportions to create any colour in the spectrum. As each colour refers to light, they grow brighter the more they are combined—it’s not magic, it’s design.


A serif is the little extra stroke or curves, at the ends of letters.

Sans Serif

Sans is French for ‘without’ so you can probably guess that San Serif Fonts are fonts without serifs on the end of their letters. Usually, sans serif fonts are easier to read on the web and digital screens—for instance, Apple use the sans serif font Helvetica Neue, across all their operating systems. Alongside Helvetica Neue, some of the most well-known examples of sans serif fonts are Futura and Brandon Grotesque.

Stock Photo

Stock photos are licensed images that designers use so they don’t have to organise an entire photoshoot to get the images they need for a project. The stock photo industry has been around since the 1920s and there’s stock photographs for pretty much everything. From wildlife to sport to architecture and everything in between.

Style Guide

A style guide sometimes known as a brand guideline is an important part of branding. They determine the correct set of standards for the branding of a business or publication. The guide includes anything from a business card to a multi-page website. A style guide ensures that all a brands’ assets have complete uniformity. Now you know what a style guide is, you’ll definitely keep noticing when brands have one!


The artistic arrangement of type in a readable and visually appealing way. Typography usually concerns the design and use of various typefaces in a way that helps to better visually communicate ideas.


A vector is a graphic image that is made with mathematical equations—they’re defined in terms of 2D points connected by lines and curves to form shapes. Basically this means that vectors can be resized or scaled to any size without losing quality or getting blurry. They’re very, very useful!

White Space

White space, despite its seemingly misleading name, does not need to be white. It is the space, which can be any colour, pattern or texture, between different elements in a design that are essential in creating a successful design. Think of white space as giving a design visual breathing room, like some sort of design meditation. Also called negative space—which is slightly less misleading.

Of course is you have any other graphic design terms that you find confusing just call us. We will happily explain them to you.

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