Graphic design terms explained

Graphic design terms explained in english (finally!)

When you first start working with a graphic designer, you’ll notice that it sometimes sounds like we have our own secret language to explain some of the technical things that are part of design. These graphic design terms may sound complex and jargony but, like with most industries, it helps to understand some of the basics.

By learning some of the basics in our design language you’ll be able to communicate effectively and not have to resort to “can you move that squiggly black thingy to the left” as well as understand your design more deeply but most of all you’ll sound like an absolute pro when you talk shop with your designer!

So we’ve decided it’s time to cover some of the most common graphic design terms that your designer wishes you knew and help bridge the communication gap!


  • Brand: A collection of concepts, ideas and emotions that characterise your company’s values, ideals and culture. A brand is an intangible combination of all the things that make the company what it is such as the content it promotes, the way employees talk, the words used, the values upheld, etc.
  • Brand Identity: The visible elements of a brand such as colors, design, logo, business cards, letterheads and so on that together identify and distinguish the brand in the customers’ minds and embodies the brand concept.
  • Logotype: A logotype stands for words or the name of a business that is designed in a customized way.
  • Logomark (or Brandmark): A logomark is an identifying mark or symbol that doesn’t contain the business name, like a drawing or image that represents the business.


  • Analogous: A colour palette using three colours that are next to each other on the colour wheel.
  • CMYK: CMYK is a colour model that is used for print purposes and stands for the four colours used in printing ‘Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Key’. CMYK is a subtractive colour, this means that we begin with white and end up with black. So, as we add more colour, the result turns darker.
  • Colour Palette: A selection of colours that make up the total range of colours used in a design or branding.
  • Colour Theory: The study of (and guidance on) colour mixing and how colours make people feel and respond. Certain colours tend to evoke certain subconscious emotions and feelings in people. (Read more: Colour psychology in marketing and branding)
  • Complementary: A colour palette using two colours that sit opposite each other on the colour wheel.
  • Cool Shades/Colours: Colours that make you think of colder temperatures, like blues, greens, violets, etc. These colours tend to create a calm and soothing atmosphere. You are able to add cooler tones to an image or photograph by increasing the blue tones in your image.
  • Gradient: A gradual change in colour from one tone blending into another.
  • Monochrome: A colour palette using only one colour but including lighter and darker tones of that colour.
  • Opacity: Opacity describes how transparent an element is. The lower the opacity, the more transparent an element is.
  • Pantone (PMS): The ‘Pantone Matching System’ is a standardised system of colours for printing. Every Pantone shade is numbered, making it much easier for people to reference and identify exact shades of colour.
  • RGB: RGB or ‘Red, Green, Blue’ is a colour model that is used for digital purposes. RGB is a additive colour, meaning that when mixing colours, we start with black and end up with white as more colour is added.
  • Saturation: The intensity of hue. The quality of difference from a gray of the same lightness or brightness.
  • Triadic: A colour palette using three colours equally spaced around the colour wheel.
  • Warm Shades/Colours: Colours that make you think of heat and warmth, like reds, yellows, oranges, etc. These colours tend to feel cosier, friendlier, and more cheerful. You are able to add more warm tones to an image or photograph by increasing the orange tones in your image.


  • Contrast: The scale of difference between black and white in an image. Some other common types of contrast are dark and light, thick and thin, rough and smooth and so on.
  • GIF File: A GIF is an image file type most commonly used for small graphics with limited colours due to it’s quality limitations but it allows for smaller files than the other image file types.
  • JPEG (or JPG) File: A JPEG is an image file type most commonly used for photo based images. Image quality can be controlled by
  • PNG File: A PNG is an image file type most commonly used when you need a small file that maintains its original quality. It handles transparency better than other image file types.
  • Resolution: Resolution essentially describes how much detail is present in an image. Images with higher resolution are better quality and show clearer detail whereas those with lower resolution appear blurry or pixelated.
  • Stock Photography: Professionally shot photography available online for licensing at a cost. Stock photos are usually more cost effective than hiring a photographer, although you are limited to what is available for purchase and others can purchase the same image.
  • TIFF File: A TIFF is best for any bitmap images that you intend to edit however the files tend to be bigger than the other image file types.
  • Vector Graphic: Vector graphics allow the designer to expand or reduce the vector graphic in size without any loss in quality using curves, points, lines, and polygons.


  • Body Copy: The main body of text in a design that provides the ‘meat’ of the communication (different from headlines). It’s the written website content, book or brochure written content, even this type you’re reading is body copy.
  • Display Type: Display type is used for headlines and is attention grabbing so it typically uses a more distinctive font or layout than the body copy.
  • Grid: A two dimensional framework made up of evenly divided, intersecting columns and rows which help designers ensure all elements in a composition are aligned and consistent.
  • Hierarchy: This is the visual organization of items into different levels of relative importance. Visual hierarchy is created using different levels of headings, colours, varying sizes and proportions based on importance.
  • Lorem Ipsum (Dummy text): Generic filler text used when the real text is not available. Used as placeholder text to demonstrate how a design will look once the real body copy has been included.
  • Margins: The space around the edge of a page. By increasing or decreasing the width of a page’s margins you can alter the mood of the design, either making it more calm or tense respectively.
  • Negative Space (or White Space): The area of a page that doesn’t contain images, words or content of any kind.
  • Pull Quote: A brief attention catching quote or excerpt pulled from the main text and used as a visual element to help highlight an important feature or idea and draw interest to the piece.
  • Spread: Two pages that face each other in a magazine or book layout.
  • Typeface: A typeface consists of a family of fonts and a full range of characters such as, numbers, letters, marks, and punctuation.
  • Typography: The art and technique of arranging type in a way that makes the words most legible and aesthetically appealing. Typography is an integral part of design and essentially concerns the design and use of typefaces in a way that helps to communicate your ideas. (Read more: The basics of typography)


  • Bleed: Describes a document which has elements that touch the edge of the page, extending beyond the trim edge and leaving no white margin. When a document has bleed, it must be printed on a larger sheet of paper and then trimmed down.
  • Deboss: A specialty printing process created by pressing an image into paper or card to create a depressed three dimensional design.
  • Die Cut: A specialty printing process that uses a ‘die’ (like a cookie cutter) to cut shapes or holes in paper or card so that the design can take on any shape.
  • Emboss: A specialty printing process created by pressing an image into paper or card to create a raised three dimensional design.
  • Foil: A specialty printing process that uses coloured foil with heat to press a design with a metallic finish onto paper.
  • Letterpress: A specialty printing process using metal plates to press a design into the surface of thick card by indenting it. Colour may or may not be used, with different effects.
  • Offset Printing: A printing method that transfers ink from a plate to a blanket to paper as opposed to directly inking from plate to paper.
  • Spot UV (or Spot Varnish): A printing process where a coating or varnish is applied to a design on paper or card to create a shiny finish.
  • Trim Size: The size of the printed material in its finished stage.

So let us know what you think! Do you know any terms that we’ve missed?

Katerina Przita

Kat specialises in branding, corporate identity and web design with a special love for illustration and infographic design.

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