Lost in Translation: Design Terms Defined

Like most specialized professions, design comes with its own language. Visual communications specialists like myself speak this language so much that we tend to forget that design jargon is often lost on colleagues, clients and friends. I have no doubt that this is unhelpful for a non-designer. However, if the designer and non-designer can tighten the translation gap, more succinct and effective communication ultimately can be achieved.

Leading non-designers to the proper design vocabulary resources is a first step toward shared understanding. I recently came across two fantastic websites that define the most-used design terms:

Here are examples of commonly-used design terms from the glossaries above. Hopefully with the help of the definitions below and the two glossaries above, the translation gap between designers and colleagues can be tightened!

Bleed – When a graphic object, such as a photo or illustration, extends past the trimmed area of a printed page. Bleed insures there is no chance for a white line on the edges of a printed piece.

Comp (Comprehensive) – Comps are made to see what the initial design project will look like before it’s printed, showing the layout of the text and illustrations.

CMYK – This color mode is a four-color printing process that only uses the colors cyan (a greenish-blue color), magenta (reddish-purple), yellow and black. In order to achieve full-color printing back in the printing press days, each ink (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) had its own plate. First the printer would lay down one color, wait for it to dry, lay down another color, wait for that one to dry, and so on. Printing presses still work on that same basic theory to this day. CYMK should only be used for printed materials.

Die Cut – The process of cutting areas of your printed design in various shapes to create unique effects (think printed pieces with rounded corners). Die-cuts are created after printing and are classed as a finishing process.

DPI (Dots Per Inch) – A term to describe the measure of sharpness within an image. 300 DPI is the standard for print. 72 DPI is the standard for web.

Grid – A two-dimensional format made up of a set of horizontal and vertical axes used to structure content on a page or screen.

Gutter – In book production, the white space formed by the inner margins of a spread near a book’s spine.

Hierarchy – The visual arrangement of design elements in a way that signifies importance. For example, you might make a title big and bold to ensure it attracts more attention than a small, lightly colored image caption.

Leading – Refers to the amount of added spacing between lines of text.

Opacity – The degree of a color or tonal value. The opacity of an image or object that can range from transparent (0% opacity) to opaque (100% opacity). The ability to edit the opacity of specific objects allows the designer to create images that seem to flow into and through one another.

Orphans and Widows – The words or short lines that appear by themselves at the top or bottom of a column of type.

Pixel – The smallest element of an image that can be individually processed on a digital display system. The main unit of measurement used for designing digital content.

PMS (Pantone Matching System) – The Pantone matching system is used for defining and blending match colors. It accommodates designers with swatches of over 700 colors and gives printers the formulas for making those colors.

PNG (usually pronounced “ping”) – Portable Network Graphics format. The PNG format displays images without jagged edges while keeping file sizes rather small, making them popular on the web. PNGs may also be used so that white areas appear transparent instead of JPGs that show white, as in this example.

RBG – The color profile used for digital screens and devices. Digital displays create RGB color by lighting up colored pixels on a screen. Millions of colors can be created through the RGB mode because each primary color of red, blue, and green have 256 levels that can be adjusted. This is why there are many more color options on a computer monitor than can be printed. It also explains why a printed product does not usually look the same as the on-screen version. RGB color mode should only be used when designing websites, mobile apps, videos, and other pieces that will be viewed digitally.

Resolution – The amount of detail an image has. Generally speaking, the higher your resolution, the better your images appear, and the more detail is rendered. Lower resolution images or graphics tend to appear pixelated or muddy.

Sans Serif Typeface – A style of typeface that means “without feet.” Usual sans serif typefaces include Arial, Helvetica, AvantGarde, and Verdana. (Like this one, Helvetica)

Serif Typeface – A typeface with small decorative strokes (called ‘serifs’) found at the end of horizontal and vertical lines. Serif typefaces tend to look professional, authoritative, and traditional in appearance. (Like this one, Georgia)

Template – Refers to a printing project’s basic details with regard to its dimensions. A general layout.

Tracking – Tracking concerns the space between letters. When we track bodies of text, we are adjusting space between every letter in a word in order to change the density or appearance of a large block of type (i.e. body copy). Tracking shouldn’t be confused with kerning, which concerns the adjustment of space between individual pairs of letters.

Vector Graphic
– Vector graphics allow the designer to expand or reduce a graphic in size without any loss in quality. Adobe Illustrator (.ai) and Encapsulated PostScript (.eps) file types are the most common.

White Space – Also called ‘negative space’, white space refers to the areas of a design that are not filled with content. White space is an important design element as it helps to let a design ‘breathe’, helps avoid overly complicated designs, and keeps designs looking clean.


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