Graphic Design Terms You Need to Know

Posted on Dec 5 2013 - 11:00am by Alison Johnston

Graphic Design

One of the most unique things about graphic design is its transformative quality. What starts out as a solo endeavor often becomes a team project by the end. While some artists prefer the solitude of working alone, others take great pleasure in collaborating with likeminded individuals; carving away at their original idea like a sculptor might remove clay. If you’ve never been a part of this collaborative process, having your original work printed might be a good place to start. Having printed copies of your graphic work can serve as a tremendous inspiration, give you something concrete to show potential clients, and solidify your dream of going into this line of work.

To successfully collaborate with others, you’ll need to know the terminology of graphic design. If you plan to make a living in the industry, you’ll definitely need to speak the language. These terms help designers work with a kind of shorthand that accelerates collaboration and puts everyone on the same page.

Before you land your first client, here are some of the graphic design words you need to know.


Color is the backbone of great graphic design. If you’ve never taken traditional art classes, you may need to brush up on your colors. This will help you understand what people mean when they refer to warm colors such as red, yellow and orange or cool colors such as blue, green, and purple. For a crash course in color combinations, Adobe provides an invaluable tool on their website. With the color wheel’s help, you’ll never need to feel uncertain when it comes to combining and contrasting colors. Cyan, magenta, yellow, and blue (CMYK) are the primary colors used in printing while red, green, and blue (RGB) make up the standard for computer graphics.

Raster Image vs. Vector Image

Raster images and vector images make up the heart of graphic design. Whether you want to work with websites or in more traditional design, you’ll be well served to know the difference. Raster images are created through the use of many small pixels. Blown up beyond their resolution, raster images will look like a collection of dots. JPEG and GIF files are raster images. Vector images differ in that the images are created between the points rather than by the points themselves. This allows the images to be expanded indefinitely without losing information. If you work with graphic design programs like Illustrator, you have probably worked with vector art and images.


Resolution is one of the most important aspects of graphic design. It’s even more important when it comes to printed materials such as directional signage or display stands. If you’re commissioned to create a graphic, you’ll need to know about resolution. Put simply, resolution is the measure of pixels and dots per inch of finished work. A low-resolution image will look fine at a small size but distorts when blown up beyond that size. Low-resolution images are fine for proofing purposes, but for actual printing, you’ll want higher resolution images.


A proof is nothing more or less than a printed example of your graphic design. This example is usually created and shown to the client to give them the best possible insight into what the finished work will look like. Proofs aren’t meant to be perfect.  They are typically untrimmed, complete with unfinished margins and graphic bleed. Even website owners will want to see proofs of their graphic design work, though most in the website industry will call them wireframes or mockups.

Serif Vs. Sans Serif

A graphic designer must be a master of fonts. Two of the most popular fonts in the industry are serif and sans serif. Your client may not specifically request either, but it certainly helps to know the terms. Serif fonts are decorated with what’s referred to as wings, embellishing the tips of letters like “t” to invoke poetry and style. Times New Roman is one of the most commonly used examples of serif fonts. Sans serif fonts, exemplified by stock text such as Helvetica, have become very popular within the graphic design world. These fonts do without the embellishment and are preferred by modern designers with a minimalist tendency. Both serif and sans serif belong to the same font family.


Copyfitting is an especially important concept for graphic designers working for the print medium. It is the concept of determining how much space you’ll need for a specific amount of text. There are a number of things that will play a role in copyfitting. Here are some of the terms you need to know:

  • Kerning – The amount of space between the letters themselves.
  • Leading – The amount of space between the lines.
  • Extended type – Wide typefaces such as Hellenic.
  • Widow – A final paragraph line that carries over to the next page.
  • Orphan – A word or part of a word that appears by itself at the end of a paragraph.

Graphic designers will often play with typefaces, margins, and kerning to prevent widowing and orphaning in conjunction with the client’s wishes.

Now you know the graphic design speak that will guide your day-to-day in the real world of advertising or marketing, and keep you on the same page with both fellow creative associates and clients alike.

Photo Credit: Flickr/University of Salford

About the Author

Alison Johnston, on behalf of FASTSIGNS, the leader in visual communications.