Graphic design, like any profession, is littered with jargon and phrases you might not be familiar with. Here are some of the key terms you should know, with a brief explanation – in words you can understand – of what they mean, plus info on where to go to learn more.

A bit like a design style guide, we’ve separated our list into different section, with a page for the themes of images, typography, graphic design and printing. Use the drop-down menu above to navigate to the theme you’re interested in. We’ll start with terms related to images.

Image types

Raster images

Raster images (sometimes referred to as bitmap images) are made up of thousands of pixels that determine colour and form. Photos are raster images. Photoshop CC is the most common raster editor, enabling you to manipulate the colour and other properties of the pixels. 

Because raster images are made up of a finite amount of pixels, resizing can be tricky. If you give a raster image larger dimensions in Photoshop, the software has to make up data in order to add the size. This results in a loss of quality.

Vector images

Vector-based images (such as those created in Illustrator CC) are made up of points, each of which has a defined X and Y coordinate. These points join paths to form shapes, and inside these shapes you can add colour fills. Because everything you generate is based around this, vectors can be blown up to any size without any loss of quality.

vector based image of a house on legs

Vector-based images (like this one) are made of points

In recent times, Illustrator has progressed so much that vector graphics have become incredibly complex. You can now add gradients, complex shapes and more to create highly detailed, scalable vector images. Because vectors can be resized, they are often used for logos and other graphics that need to be used across many different outputs (from leaflet to billboard size, for instance). 

For more details see How to create vector art: top tutorials.

Colour modes

When working in Photoshop or Illustrator, you have the option to set your document’s colour mode to CMYK or RGB. There are some other colour modes, but CMYK and RGB are the two you really need to know about. 

CMYK

CMYK is the standard colour mode for sending documents – whether it’s a magazine, newspaper, flyer, brochure, annual report and so on – to the printer. It stands for cyan, magenta, yellow and key. 

CMYK overlapping circles

CMYK stands for cyan, magenta, yellow and key

‘Key’ in this instance means black. It’s referred to as key because in four-colour printing, cyan, magenta and yellow printing plates are carefully keyed, or aligned, with the key of the black key plate. 

When you send a job to the press, cyan, magenta, yellow and black plates are made (on a traditional press, anyhow) and then aligned to print on paper. You can add Pantone, or fifth colours, as separate plates.

RGB

RGB stands for red, green, blue, and is used for screen output. Because CMYK has a more limited colour gamut than RGB (which is essentially what the eye sees and how screens output), you can experience a loss of colour when converting from RGB to CMYK in these applications.

For more on colour systems, read this article.

Image resolution

Resolution is another key term that is often confused. There are two main acronyms used when dealing with resolution: DPI and PPI.

DPI

The more dots per inch, the better quality the printed image will be

DPI

DPI is only of concern when you’re creating work for printed output. It stands for ‘dots per inch’ and refers to the number of dots per inch on a printed page. Generally, the more dots per inch, the better quality the image. 300DPI is the standard for printing images.

PPI

PPI stands for ‘pixels per inch’ and, as you’d expect, refers to the number of pixels per inch in your image. If you make an image larger in Photoshop, you will increase the number of pixels per inch (with Photoshop making up the data) and you will lose quality. There’s an excellent explanation here.

Bear in mind that resolution only applies to raster graphics, because vectors do not work in pixels. 

Next page: Typography terms you should know

typography saying blowish angels with numbers

Can you name all these typographical elements?

Put simply, typography is the art of arranging type. It’s one of the fundamentals of graphic design and a topic every designer should read into in great detail.

The difference between good type and great type is often what sets brilliant designers apart. A great place to start your typography education is our comprehensive article Typography rules and terms every designer must know.

However, to get you started, we’ve rounded up some of the most often confused terms here.

Kerning

Kerning is the adjustment of the spacing between characters in a font to make a more aesthetically pleasing result. For instance, you might want to increase the space between a ‘t’ and an ‘i’ to stop the arm of the ‘t’ merging with the ‘i’, making your type illegible. You’ll also want to make sure your kerning is correct when using a capital such as ‘T’ or ‘A’ in a headline. 

In applications such as InDesign CC, kerning can either be applied via the context-sensitive Control Panel using numerical entries, or, more frequently, by using shortcut keys to kern by eye. Automatic kerning is almost never good enough for use in headlines, where your type is more noticeable due to its size, so should always be done manually.

For body copy – or longer passages of text – you can use either Metrics or Optical tracking in InDesign. After all, you’re not going to want to kern each letter in reams of text, are you? Metrics pulls the kerning pairs that are included in most fonts, whereas Optical bases kerning on the shapes of the letters. Some fonts have comprehensive kerning pairs, some don’t. Optical is usually the best choice if you’re unsure.

Tracking

Tracking is uniformly increasing or decreasing (although more likely increasing) the spacing between letters in a line or block of text. For instance, you may want a headline to span across the width of a page with equal spacing between each letter. Again, you can track type either manually or using number inputs in the likes of InDesign.

Whereas tracking is a horizontal spacing methods, leading is a vertical spacing method – essentially the space between two lines of type. But more accurately, leading is the spacing between the baseline of one line of type and the baseline of the next line of type. The amount of leading applied depends on your font and the type of document. A column of normal body text will require less leading than a few lines of elaborate script, for instance. It’s really about making sure your type is legible and the descenders don’t run into the lines below. 

Oh, and it’s pronounced ‘ledding’ because the term dates back to when typographers used to separate the lines by hand with strips of lead.

Orphans and widows

widows and orphans examples

Two typography sins: a single word on the final line of the paragraph, and a widow

If you’re working with long passages of text – and you don’t have the services of an excellent proofreader – you need to watch out for widows and orphans. Hell, even if you’re just working on small passages, you need to know this. 

In typesetting, widows are paragraph-ending lines that fall at the beginning of the following page or column. Orphans are paragraph lines that start at the bottom of a page or column. Both look ugly, and should be padded out with more copy (usually the best fix) or fixed by the designer. Also, look out for single words falling on the final line of a paragraph – they’re unsightly.

Next page: Graphic design terms you should know

Grids

grids

Setting up a grid enables you to get your composition right

The best way to describe a grid in graphic design is a series of intersecting vertical and horizontal lines used to organise and structure content. Whether you’re working in InDesign, Photoshop or Illustrator, setting up a grid enables you to get your composition right and balance your type and imagery.

Grids typically include a large header across the top of the design, with equally sized columns beneath, but there’s no real limit on what can be created. Grid Systems in Graphic Design by Josef Muller-Brockmann is an essential read in this area.

Logo design

printed images on wall

Logos are powerful graphic tools, but they’re just one part of the branding process

Logos are powerful things; a great logo works as an instant reminder of a company or product, and for designers they represent the challenge of distilling a brand’s essence into a single graphic. The best logos can live for a long time, and a new logo design can be a jarring event for customers, as the familiar is replaced by something new.

Designing a great logo is by no means easy; follow our definitive guide to logo design for some tips – or check out the 10 best logos ever to see what can happen when you get it right.

Branding

sign for North Greenwich during Olympics in London

Taken by itself, Wolff Olins’ 2012 Olympics logo attracted ridicule, but it was built to work within a much larger branding system

What logo design isn’t, is branding. While the logo is often the stand-out part of a brand, there’s much more to branding than a logo. A good brand identity is carefully built out of a number of elements, and the logo will reflect these elements and work within the brand system.

Creating or refreshing a brand can be a massive undertaking, involving a deep understanding of the brand’s personality, how it’s perceived, its history and function, and much more. Get a taste of what you’re in for with these 7 steps for creating a great brand identity.

Next page: Printing terms you should know

Whilst offset printing is the most common method, for smaller runs or jobs on different media you may encounter different types of printing methods. So let’s look at what they are, what they entail and how you’d usually supply your job.

Offset printing

This is the most common type of printing for bigger jobs – especially in publishing – where the inked image is transferred from a plate to a rubber blanket, and then onto the printing surface. You’ll usually supply your files to the printer as PDFs (making sure you check the Separations panel), before they make them into separate CMYK plates for printing (with Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black all being applied separately).

Digital printing

Simple this one – and what you’ll get if you submit your job to a high street printer or specialist shop. It’s exactly the same as printing at home or in the office, but probably better quality (unless you have a top-of-the-line inkjet at your disposal). If you’re doing a lot of printing work for small-scale jobs it might be worth investing in a high-end inkjet – not just because you’ll save money, but because you can finely control the colour calibration from screen to output.

See our post on the best printers in 2018 for your home office.

Flexography

If you’re printing on plastic for medium or large runs, it’s likely you’ll use flexo printing. Basically, flexo printing uses quick-drying ink on flexible plates wrapped around rotating cylinders. The substrate – the material you’re printing on – is often supplied in large rolls, meaning the press can run with minimal interruptions. 

There are limitations to what you can print. Type smaller than 4 points is pretty much a no-go; reversed type also doesn’t work very well. And four-colour photos aren’t going to look anywhere near as sharp as when using digital or offset printing. 

The best thing to do? Visit your printer before and during the printing process. You’ll often supply an underpin plate as well as your CMYK PDF – anywhere your plastic is transparent won’t need an underpin; anywhere you want to print on will.

Letterpress

blocks of letters

Letterpress printing uses blocks of moveable type

This is a bit more old-school, and you’ll only use it if you want to try your hand at this craft. Essentially, it’s a relief printing method, where blocks of moveable type are locked into a bed, inked and then raised against a continuous roll or sheet of paper. The likes of Alan Kitching (check out his book, A Life in Letterpress), Anthony Burrill and Erik Spiekermann have been responsible for the resurgence of letterpress printing in recent times.

Screenprinting

If you’re looking to print on fabric – perhaps a T-shirt design or similar – screenprinting is the way to go. Simply put, you use a mesh to transfer ink onto your material (by forcing it through), blocking off the areas you don’t want to print using a stencil. Each colour has to be applied separately, so it can be quite a costly process. It’s great for blocks of colour, but not so great for fine details.

Soft and hard proofs

What’s the difference between a soft proof and hard proof? Well, it’s simple. A soft proof is a proof on your monitor – usually a PDF file supplied by the printer before printing starts. A hard proof is an accurate on-paper proof of how your job will look when printed. It’s always – no exceptions – best to ask for a hard proof from your printer, even if it’s a repeat job or you’ve worked with the printer before. You can even get hard proofs of jobs with spot colours. But be prepared to pay or factor this into your client’s fees.

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