Graphic Design Vocabulary

150 150 Derek Kimball

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Listed below are some of the more commonly used terms associated with graphic design. This quick glossary should be helpful for any clients or novice graphic designers wishing to learn a bit more about graphic design related terminology. I’ve tried to keep these definitions as simple as possible.

Anti-Aliasing: the smoothing of jagged pixel edges in an image or graphic.

Bevel: applying a beveled effect – giving a 3d appearance to an otherwise flat looking graphic. This is achieved by adding highlights and shadows to an object’s edges.

Bleed (bleed edge): when creating a design for print, a “bleed edge” needs to be added to the document’s page size. For example, a brochure with the dimensions  8″ x 10″ needs to be created at something like 8.5″ x 10.5″. This leaves room for the design to extend past the cut area.

CMYK: a very common color mode used for printing, also known as “process colors”. The CMYK stands for the colors cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. The letter K represents black as a way to not confuse with blue. When printing in CMYK, not all colors are achievable (ex: bright blues). For this reason, spot colors (pantone colors) can be used to add shots of necessary colors (see “spot colors” to learn more).

DPI (dots per inch): represents the resolution of an output device such as a printer. The higher the DPI, the more pixels (dots) fit into each inch of the image. In other words, the higher the DPI, the better an image will look in print. 300 dpi is sufficient for many print jobs, but it’s all dependent on the detail required and the material being printed on. DPI is often confused with the term “PPI” (see “ppi” to learn more).

Duotone: Just like the name implies, a duotone is simply an image consisting of 2 colors. Printing an image with 2 colors rather than 1 will result in an image that has more depth than a single monotone color print.

FTP (File Transfer Protocol): ability to transfer files from one computer to another using the internet. There are FTP software programs (ex: “CuteFTP” or “Transmit” for mac) that make the process of transferring large amounts of data possible and simple. FTP programs (also referred to FTP clients) are commonly used tools for uploading and updating sites on the web.

Gamut: basically a range of available color. There are color modes in graphic design. Each mode consists of a certain amount of colors. This range of available color is referred to as “gamut”. Any color that falls out of this range is called “out of gamut”.

GIF: one of the most widely used graphic image file formats on the web.

-web browser friendly
-small file size is great for web pages.
-support background transparency
-limited to only 256 colors
-photos don’t look good saved as GIF

Gradient: a gradual transition of colors. The way the sky fades from one color to another during a sunset is an example of a gradient.

JPG: (also spelled “JPEG”) this image format is the most commonly used web format when it comes to photos or detailed imagery. JPGS are a “lossy” format, meaning some quality is lost to achieve their smaller file size.

-look great on a monitor, despite “lossy” format
-support a higher number colors than gifs, however larger file sizes
-web browser friendly
-ok for print if saved as highest quality
-Saving jpg images at high quality will result in better picture quality but longer loading times on the internet. Saving at low quality will result in lower picture quality but fast web page loading times.
-unlike “PNG” and “GIF” file formats, JPG’s don’t support background transparency

Kerning: the horizontal spacing between a pair of letters in a word. Certain letter pairs look awkward together, so sometimes it’s necessary to move the letters closer together or further apart. Examples of how spacing varries with various letter combinations: AV, PA, AT, and AY. Kerning is often confused with the term “tracking” (see “tracking”). Tracking is used for spacing larger groups of letters or text.

Pantone matching system: a color matching system allowing designers and print shops to more easily match colors. This is accomplished by referencing Pantone swatch books (guides) for the proper recipe of colors. This Pantone system is not perfect, but it has become the industry standard for color matching.

-good way to select “out of gamut” (see “gamut”) spot colors (see “spot colors”) for print projects.
-spot colors can be expensive
-no two color guides are printed exactly the same

PDF (portable document format): a document format that allows for the reading and writing of multi-page documents or articles. It’s possible to keep the same format, layout, and fonts of a document across any computer setup. A free software program like Adobe Acrobat is needed to read PDF’s. PDF’s are a good way to write ebooks, articles, and also serve as a good way to show images.

Pixelation: raster images (see “raster”) are comprised of tiny dots. The more dots that fit into a certain area (1×1″ for example), the higher the resolution. Often times images with low resolution appear “blocky” or pixelated because of their lack of pixels per inch (see “ppi”). This blocky appearance is referred to as pixelation. Vector (see “vector”) image are void of pixelation.

To understand pixelation, think of the old Atari video games. Remember how the graphics were made up of tiny blocks. Each of these blocks are called pixels. Now look at today’s video games, monitors, and tv screens where the pixels are much less noticeable. The reason is because the pixels are smaller and more crammed. This results in a more detailed viewing image.

PNG: a common image format used for displaying images on the web.

-offers background transparency (great for web)

-larger in file size than a gif, but still reasonable for web use
-display many colors
-display text more crisp than jpg images.

PPI (pixels per inch): specifies the resolution of an input device (digital camera, scanner, monitor). Web pages run at a resolution of 72-96 PPI. PPI is often confused with the term “DPI” (see “dpi”).

Raster: a raster image is an image that is made up of pixels (tiny dots). Raster graphics or images are resolution dependent, meaning they cannot scale to arbitrary size without apparent loss in quality. Photographs are raster images. Vector (see “vector”) images on the other hand, can be scaled to any size, with no worries of pixelation (see “pixelation”) or quality loss associated with raster imagery.

Resolution: The detail of an image is based on how many pixels (dots) are included in 1 square inch of space. The more pixels (see “pixels”) included in that space, the higher the resolution.  Computer monitors use no more than 72 pixels (dots) per inch, so going higher is pointless. However a minimum of 300 dots per inch is usually recommended for printing.

RGB: the color mode that is read by computer screens and the web. The RGB mode consists of red, green, and blue color combinations. Anything created for web use should be created in RGB color mode, while anything for print should be created in CMYK color mode.

San Serif: A kind of font type that is void of the strokes on the end of letters that can be found on a “serif” typeface (see “serif”).

Serif: A type of font that has exaggerated strokes or details at the end of it’s letters (unlike “san serif” typefaces).

Spot Color: When printing in CMYK color (see “cmyk”), often times certain colors can not be achieved. This is when “spot colors” are called upon. An extra printing plate with the spot color is added to the printing process (costing extra money). Spot colors are also used for limited color print jobs, since it’s sometime cheaper to print just the single or double spot colors rather than the entire 4 used in CMYK process printing. The Pantone Matching System (PMS) is the most widely recognized system for spot colors.

TIFF: (also spelled TIF) image format commonly used when printing of high quality is necessary. Unlike the “JPG” format that sacrifices quality for file size, TIFF’s sacrifice file size for quality.

-very large file sizes
-great format for printing (not “lossless” like JPG)
-not web friendly due to large file size

Tracking: the adjustment of space between a group of letters or entire blocks of text. A change in tracking can result in easier to read text, making it feel more “airy” and open. Tracking is often confused with “kerning” (see “kerning”). Kerning is more the spacing between 2 letters that appear to close together.

Vector: a graphics format that uses shapes and paths (lines) to form graphic images. Vector graphics are resolution independent and regardless of how magnified, all edges  will remain crisp, clear, and smooth. This ability to stay crisp at any size, means vector graphics are great for logos, line art, and other designs that don’t require complicated coloring or textures.

Are there any commonly used graphic design terms that I’m leaving out? If so please let me know by commenting below.


Derek Kimball

Derek is the founder of DesignBuddy and a full time graphic designer. He specializes in logo creation and visual branding. Over the past 13 years Derek has helped hundreds of clients grow their business and establish a stronger brand identity. View his portfolio, or get in touch. If you'd like to receive an occasional free newsletter with useful design related content, please subscribe here.

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