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Design Dictionary: 36 Terms You Should Know and Understand + Cheatsheet

Igor Ovsyannykov March 31, 2021 · 8 min read

As you journey through the intricacies of becoming a designer, you will learn that design, like any other field of expertise, uses a special language that allows people within the industry to understand each other.

These terms are also a great resource for marketers simply because design work is one of the most important aspects in their discipline. After all, branding relies on design decisions, and not being able to communicate effectively with your own designers could jeopardize the success of any marketing campaign or project.

You will find a description of some of these key terms below. Test yourself and check if you understand all, or at least most of them. See how far you still have to go as you work towards becoming a great designer, or in your attempt to communicate effectively with one. In the meantime, download this handy cheatsheet:

  • Alignment. This dictates how images, texts, and shapes are arranged and positioned. It is usually defined by setting it as left aligned, right aligned, centered, or justified.
  • Bleed. The bleed is the part of the page that gets trimmed off once the image is printed. In case there are important aspects that are part of the page’s bleed, then the document should be printed on a larger sheet of paper and trimmed down from there.
  • Camera Ready. When a document is declared to be camera ready, this means that it is ready for reproduction and could now be printed out or sent to the printers.
  • CMYK. CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key (black). These are the basic colors used for documents being sent to the printers (newspapers, magazines, flyers, etc.). On a traditional press, the first three colors are aligned or ‘keyed’ to the black plate, which explains why black is also called Key. If there is a need for a fifth color to be added, these are created as separate plates.
  • Crop Marks. These are often seen on the outside of printed pieces. They are guides used as each piece is cut to its final size.
  • Die Cut. Die cuts are used to print documents that require unconventional shapes. It is a metal ruler that can cut shapes on different kinds of materials.
  • DPI. DPI stands for dots per inch, an acronym used to measure resolution. Based on the name itself, this measures how many dots there are for every inch of printed space. As you increase the number of dots, the image quality improves. For images to be printed, 300 DPI is usually the standard resolution.
  • Export. This means that you are saving the file in a format that can be used by a different program. The Export function often allows you to open the file in computers that do not have the same design software that you do.
  • Font. A font is an element of typography that dictates the style and size of displayable text characters under a typeface.
  • GIF. A common format used for images, it can either be static or animated.
  • Grids. Grids are a series of horizontal and vertical lines that intersect and allow a designer to add structure and organize content. It helps to balance and lay out the entire composition.
  • Gutter. The gutter is the space created when a book or magazine is bound. It is the blank space between two pages facing each other.
  • JPEG. This is short for Joint Photographic Experts Group. One of the most common image formats used, it is best used for images that contain gradients.
  • Kerning. Kerning is the spacing between characters to make the pairing of every two letters more balanced. For example, if an A and a V were placed beside each other, the top left corner of the V will often be aligned with the bottom right corner of A so that the text, as a whole, appears more balanced.
  • Layers. Layers are tools within design software that separate tiers of information, shapes, and images from each other. They allow effective organization and editing of the design work done on the specific software used.
  • Leading. Leading is the vertical space that sets each line of type apart. As a general rule, the leading used should be 1.25 to 1.5 times bigger than the font size to make lines of text easier to read.
  • Logo Design. Logo design is the process of creating a visual identity that represents a company, brand, or individual. It is important to understand what logo design really entails because many people interchange the terms “logo design” and “branding”. Logo design is actually just a single process that contributes to the more complex realm that is brand development.
  • Measure. Measure is used to define the width of a text block. This is important if you want to give the audience an optimal reading or viewing experience.
  • Negative Space. This is the amount of space around the shapes and words used in a design piece.
  • Orphan. This is a term used to describe a group of words or a short line towards the end or at the beginning of a paragraph. These can create an unwanted focal point as they become isolated from the rest of the content. While an orphan is a lonely word at the end of a paragraph, a widow is a short phrase or word that lies at beginning or end of a column. The result is similar: orphans create too much white space between paragraphs, while widows make sentences within paragraphs seem disjointed.
  • Pantone System. This is a color matching system used in the printing industry. It uses the number system created by Pantone to effectively identify the colors used.
  • PDF. Short for Portable Document Format, it is a popular format used for documents that are being sent for printing.
  • Pica. It is a unit of measurement used in typesetting. One pica is 1/6th of an inch. It is a measure used by different design software such as InDesign.
  • Pixel. A pixel is the smallest element on a single raster image. Each image is made up of small pixels that, when grouped together, form vivid objects in the eyes of the viewer.
  • PNG. This file format is short for Portable Network Graphics. It is great for web design, and supports transparency around images.
  • PPI. Another measure for resolution, PPI stands for Pixels Per Inch. Using the same concept as the one used in DPI, the more pixels for every inch, the more detailed the images are. The standard is 72 PPI for digital images.
  • Proof. This refers to a copy or preview of what your design will look like. Another term used for this is ‘mockup’. A proof is often printed out or sent to a client so that they can review the material before having it printed.
  • PSD. A format used for files that come directly from Adobe Photoshop.
  • Raster Images. Raster images are also known as bitmap images. They are made up of thousands of pixels that dictate each image’s form and color. The best example of a raster image is a regular photo, and the most common tool used to edit a raster image is Adobe Photoshop.
  • RGB. This stands for red, green, and blue, and is a color mode used to display vibrant images on screen. Designing for print often requires switching to CMYK color mode (described above). Failing to work in the right color mode will result in “automatic” conversions, leading to loss of quality and fidelity.
  • Sans Serif. A common typeface style where letters don’t have small lines (serifs) at the ends of each character. Some popular examples are Helvetica and Gotham.
  • Slug. A slug is an optional space that a designer adds to a document to display information that won’t be part of the final product. It often contains copyrights, notes, or other information that is part of the proofing process.
  • Tracking. Tracking is similar to kerning, but tracking applies an even amount of space between characters.
  • Typeface. A typeface is the entire design set for a group of fonts. These often come in families that contain similar attributes.
  • Typography. Typography is one of the basic fundamentals of graphic design and allows the designer to arrange the type used on any composition.
  • Vector Images. Instead of having pixels like the ones used in raster images, vector images use points that have X and Y coordinates. The points are then connected to form shapes, and colors are applied within each shape that is formed. Vectors can be resized endlessly without quality loss. A popular tool to create these vector images is Adobe Illustrator.

Although there are already a lot of terms on this list, know that there is much more out there that you’ll eventually have to learn. Work on understanding these terms and knowing where and how to use them. Try to read about emerging terms and tools that affect your industry. An exciting design career awaits!

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Igor Ovsyannykov

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  • With the greatest respect to the originator of this article, and while I understand why it must be basic, it surely should always be as informative and as accurate as possible. There are examples in this that really should not be used as a learning descriptive at all. Just a couple of examples - RGB... is not most often used to describe the colour of screen projected objects, it is ALWAYS used for that. As CMYK is ALWAYS used for print. You cannot print in RGB. RGB is a subtractive process that works with light. The more of one colour light you add the less intensity you see in the result so if you have 100% of Red plus 100% of Green plus 100% of Blue (lights) the result is white (light). The CMYK system (it is not a colour mode) is an additive process used for pigments (i.e. when printing) the more of each colour added generally the darker the result becomes so 100% of Cyan plus 100% of Magenta plus 100% of Yellow will appear almost black. The K of CMYK is (as you say) the Key colour but it is nothing to do with alignment (that's registration and is completely different). The Key colour (black) is actually to give definition and depth and helps avoid 'muddy' blacks that may be produced by CMY alone. An Orphan... is correctly described as maybe a lone word left on it's own on the last line of a paragraph. However a Widow is actually a line of text that is forced to make a paragraph or column on its own. There are many elements of this description that are not strictly correct and to encourage new designers to learn, again with the greatest respect, I think you should have had this article proof read by someone with a better knowledge before publishing. I am posting this to be helpful not vindictive in any way. I admire the use of a blog such as this to post educational stories and items, but please be more careful to ensure they are more accurate before publishing. 6 years ago
  • One pica is not 1/16th of an inch. A pica is approx. 1/6th of an inch or 4.2mm. A pica, as a unit of type is also equal to 12 points. 6 years ago
  • @Matthew Labutte, thank you. That was a typo. 6 years ago
  • Thanks for bringing up these corrections @Alec Smith and @Matthew Labutte. These will surely help refine the article and point new designers in the right direction. We have incorporated your suggestions in the cheatsheet and text. 6 years ago
  • "RGB... is not most often used to describe the colour of screen projected objects, it is ALWAYS used for that. As CMYK is ALWAYS used for print. You cannot print in RGB." If we're trying to be as technically accurate as humanly possible then this statement is also slightly incorrect as digital c-type printing uses RGB laser light to print and most commonly requires files to be created in sRGB colourspace. I honestly think the RGB description is fine for most designers and overall I think this list could be very handy for designers to explain basic definitions to their clients. 6 years ago
  • Please, please, please revise your cheat-sheet before it gets dispensed as correct information. As we know there's nothing more dangerous than a "little" knowledge. All the correct definitions of the print-centric terms can be found in the readily available Graphics Master 8 — available in most bookstores or on The rest of your non-print centric terminology can be googled. I mean for this to be helpful not snarky. For Example: CAMERA -READY means that a document is, from a technical standpoint, is ready to "go to press", or be printed — not ready to be sent to the printers (you can still send artwork to a printer that is NOT camera ready.) DIE CUT is not a metal ruler that can cut shapes on different kinds of materials. There is no metal ruler involved. What you're referring to is a process used in printing to cut material into a specific shape using a steel cutting die (thus the term die-cutting). EXPORT does not allow you to open the file in programs other than the one you're designing in. Exporting is the act of exporting the contents of your artwork/design into another file format. AN ORPHAN is not A group of words or a short line towards the end or at the beginning of a paragraph. You're thinking of a widow. -- An orphan is a single word at the bottom of a paragraph that gets left behind. -- A widow a word or line of text that is forced to go on alone and start its own column or page. It's important as you're putting cheat-sheets together to fact check the definitions. When you dumb-down these details you do a disservice to the designers you're trying to help and we end up re-educating clients who swear they know what they're talking about because they read it on the internet. If you're really interested in teaching people about the lost art of prepping artwork for print you should check out back issues of "The Standard" written, produced and printed for the fine folks at Sappi Papers: 6 years ago
  • To clarify the eternal DPI-PPI mystery... PPI=Pixels Per Inch=the resolution of an *image*. The old rule of thumb is that images should be 300ppi at final size for best print. DPI=Dots Per Inch=the resolution of a DEVICE. A desktop printer images at 600dpi (usually). A platesetter for offset printing plates may run 2400dpi. That's how small a spot the imaging laser burns as it's imaging the plate. DPI and PPI are NOT interchangeable terms; I know everyone does it, but that leads to misinformation. And as for the definition of design to final trim size (e.g., a business card at 3.5"x2"), and provide bleed OUTSIDE the trim edge to allow a margin of error in finishing. If you have important artwork falling in the bleed, as you mention, you've designed your job wrong! 6 years ago
  • Just to clarify the RGB item once more (thanks Andrew Waring). The C-Type process you refer to is in fact a photographic 'print' it is not printing in the sense that is being discussed above. The photographic print process uses light to 'expose' the photo print material, hence RGB. Apart from using lasers (or LED or similar) to expose the paper rather than the traditional 'bulb' method of producing a photographic print, it is generally the method used now to reproduce digital files as photographic prints rather than from a negative. The only way we know how to replicate as many colours as possible in physical pigment printing is using the CMYK additive method. A better method has not been invented yet. The only thing that can add to it is using 5 or 6 colours (or technically more) to add special(s) as well that cannot be replicated using CMYK alone. BTW there's no offense meant here in any way shape or form it is just a matter of being as factual as possible. After all this is a 'learning' post. 6 years ago
  • Is it just me, or are these type of posts overdone? I feel like I'm being bashed on the head repeatedly by things I should know. How about your write a post from one creative field to another like, I don't know a web designers guide to print ready artwork. 6 years ago