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Graphic Design Terms: A Glossary for Beginners

Most of us can appreciate good design, but when you find yourself having to give direction on your own small business’ marketing graphics, some of the terminology can leave the uninitiated totally mystified.

Check out these 32 definitions of some of the most common graphic design terms…

Alignment

The way that different elements consistently line up within a design. For example, when a piece of text lines up vertically on the left margin (like this blog post), this is left alignment.

Bleed

Within a printed design, the bleed is the area outside the edges that gets cut off (see also “Trim”)..

CMYK

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This is a standard colour model used for printing and refers to the four main colours used in most printing processes (cyan, magenta, yellow and “key colour,” i.e., black). See RGB for an “on screen” equivalent colour model.

Compression

The concept of image compression is to reduce unnecessary data storage in order to transmit or store files in the most efficient way possible. See “lossless” and “lossy” definitions for more info.

Contrast

This marks the difference in distinguishability between different colours within a picture. Low contrast makes the colours differ from each other less and high contrast makes the colours differ more.

DPI

Stands for “dots per inch,” and refers to the sharpness of a printed image. Sometimes wrongly confused with PPI (see below).

Filter

A routine that alters the appearance of an image by changing the pixels, for example increasing a particular colour hue or falsely emulating a different texture.

GIF

Stands for “Graphic Interchange Format,” a common image format that supports both static images and short animations.

Gradient

A smooth and gradual fade in of colour or transparency from one colour or image element to another.

Graphic Design

The skill or practice of composing and arranging graphics and text for marketing or artistic (or both!) purposes.

Hex Colour

This is a 6-digit code used to represent an on-screen colour. Usually shown preceded by a “#.” For example #74a016, which represents a pleasant peridot green colour.

JPEG or JPG

A standard lossy (see “lossy”) image file format created by the Joint Photographic Experts Group whose initials give the format its name.

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Lorem Ipsum

This is generally used as placeholder text within a design, so the design’s graphical elements can be demonstrated before the final text has been put in place. It takes the form of scrambled, nonsensical Latin.

Lossless

Lossless compression refers to image compression methods where are an image’s entire data can be fully (or virtually fully) reconstructed. In contrast, see “lossy.”

Lossy

Lossy compression refers to image compression methods that result in the loss of some data, sometimes noticeably to the human eye. In contrast, see “lossless.”

Margin

This is the border around a print or digital design that acts as a buffer between the content and the edge of the image.

Mock Up

A rough design to indicate the general appearance of the finished product; could be considered a kind of “design prototype,” if you will.

Negative Space

The background “blank” space within a picture or image.

Opacity/Transparency

Refers to the “see-through-ness” of an image or an element within a design.

Pantone

A standardised system of print colour matching established by New Jersey company Pantone Inc. The Pantone Colour Matching System provides a standardised reference for reproducing precise colour in print.

PDF

Stands for “Portable Document Format,” and is a standard way of sending documents in a way that ensures a level of consistency in their appearance across different devices.

PNG

An image file type that stands for “Portable Network Graphics.” It’s one of the most common lossless image formats used online.

PPI

Stands for “pixels per inch,” and refers to the density of pixels within an image, and is therefore a measure of an image’s resolution (see “Resolution”). PPCM (pixels per centimetre) also exists if you prefer metric.

PSD

The default file type for Photoshop design software, which stands for “Photoshop Document.”

Resolution

Refers to the depth of information held by an image file. Higher resolution images mean finer detail and a sharper image, and low resolution sacrifices detail and sharpness for a smaller file size.

RGB

The model for displaying colours on a computer screen. Stands for Red, Green, Blue which can be combined to achieve any colour on a device’s screen.

Saturation

The intensity of one or more colours within an image. A saturated image has brighter than normal colours, and an under-saturated image has dull colours.

TIFF

Stands for “Tagged Image File Format,” and is a standard lossless image file format originating in 1986 – needless to say, many tweaks have been made to the format since then!

Trim

The exact line where a print design will be cut around the edges.

Watermark

A faint, slightly transparent overlay that is usually used digitally to identify ownership or copyright information.

Web Colours

See “Hex Colour”

Web-Safe Colours

A selection of 216 colours that display consistently across a number of devices and screens. Using these colours on websites helps retain the same look and feel of the site whatever you’re viewing it on.

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Hope this glossary has been helpful. Pondering over a definition that I’ve left out? Please share it down in the comments and we’ll have a chat!