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How to speak graphic design: Improving communication to improve results

by | Last updated Dec 6, 2021 | Published on Jun 20, 2017 | Traditional Marketing | 0 comments

You know what you need.

Or at least you think you do.

But when you ask your graphic designer for a logo, brochure, poster, presentation or any other visual aid to support your marketing efforts, you’re faced with a barrage of questions full of words and phrases you aren’t quite sure you understand, and you’re wishing you had a “Graphic Designer to English” pocket dictionary handy.

At times, graphic designers wish you did too: Like when you’re trying to tell us something isn’t quite right with the design but the language barrier just leads to frustration for both of us. Admittedly, a lot of the issue is ours… we don’t always remember that this information isn’t commonplace and might be completely foreign to those not in the field.

There are a lot of technical terms when it comes to file types, typography, the design process, images, layouts, colors and printing.

Clients from Hell (which I probably shouldn’t tell you exists) has a number of cringe-worthy examples of miscommunication between clients and designers. For example:

How to speak graphic design: Improving communication to improve results – Savoir Faire Marketing & Communications

source: clientsfromhell.net

To help you understand the language of the Graphic Designer and to improve communications, we’ve compiled definitions of commonly used design terms.

Design process

Thumbnail Often, the design process begins with “thumbnail” sketches, so named for their size. These sketches are small, lo-fidelity drawings, either done with a drawing program or an old skool pen and paper, created to quickly brainstorm ideas.

Wireframes Wireframes are the next step in the process when dealing with design projects which require layouts such as websites, brochures or magazine articles. These can be low-fidelity drawings or more fully planned, hi-fidelity representations of layout elements. Wireframes are the foundation or blueprint for the finished product.

Comps Comps, also called design comprehensives or mockups, are much more refined than wireframes. They are used to explore fonts and colors and imagery and are typically a realistic representation of the finished product.

Prototype A prototype shows both functionality and design. In website development, this might be a clickable set of pages to demonstrate navigation; in print design, this might be a printed mockup/comp which is trimmed and folded to specs.

Retouch Retouching typically refers to the process of adjusting image quality using a program such as Photoshop.

Edit Edits are usually content focused and refer to small changes to verbiage or copy. However, an “edit” can also refer to a small, singular design change.

Update What exactly an update includes could be fairly subjective. But for the most part, it refers to a refresh or reimagining of an existing design without completely losing the intent or appearance of the original design.

Modify Similar to an update, modifying a design involves swapping out elements or changing a color or two to adjust the appearance of the original design without completely changing it. You might go through a few “rounds” of modifications during the design comp phase in order to arrive at the final design.

Redesign When an update or modification goes well beyond a few strategic changes, it might be time to consider a redesign. A redesign starts from scratch and should be considered a new design entirely.


Typography The arrangement and appearance of letters and text.

Leading The vertical space between lines of text. In web design, this can also be referred to as line height.

Kerning The spacing between two letters. In mono-spaced or fixed-width  fonts, this distance is the same regardless of the letters. In variable-width fonts, the space is proportional to the letters and takes into consideration serifs and flourishes.

Tracking Often confused with kerning, tracking is space between groups of letters, usually an entire word or line of text to fill space.

Typeface For the most part, in modern times, typeface and font are used interchangeably. The term typeface goes back to the early days of printing when type was set using metal blocks and referred to all the blocks a typesetter might need for a particular letter design, for example Garamond. Fonts were actually sets of blocks for each point size and each style (8 pt, 10 pt, 12 pt, bold, italic, etc).

Font A font is a subset of a typeface. And, if making a distinction between font and typeface, it refers to a specific size and style such as 8pt Times Italic or 10pt Times Italic, which would be two different fonts.

Font family A font family is similar to a typeface. It is the collection of all sizes and styles of a typeface such as bold, italic, condensed, extended, heavy, light, etc.

Font style This term is mostly used in website development and CSS and is used to specify  italic, normal and oblique.

Font weight Bold, light, semi-bold, etc can be the name of a font within a typeface or family. These terms can also describe the appearance of letters (their weight). In website code, font weight is specified often as numbers such as 200, 300, 400 for extra light, light, and regular, for example.

Serif Serif fonts have serifs. Serifs are those small hats and feet on letters. An example of a font with serifs is Times New Roman.

Sans-serif Sans = without. Therefore, a sans-serif fonts does not have serifs. An example is Arial.

Alignment Alignment in typography refers to the horizontal display of a paragraph of text (versus the alignment of images, text and other graphics in a layout). The four types of alignment are left aligned, right aligned, centered and justified.

Left aligned Left aligned is the common alignment for most type. It is charactered by text that has a straight margin on the left and ragged margin on the right. This can also be referred to as “flush left.” Sometimes this is also called “left justified;” however, this term can be confusing given the use of “justified” to describe other alignment settings.

Right aligned Right aligned text is aligned relative to the right side of the page and is ragged on the left. This is also called “flush right.”

Centered Centered text originates from the middle of a text box or page and has equal margins on both the left and right side of a line. Centered text is often used in headlines or small areas of text but can be hard to read if used for large blocks of copy.

Justified Justified text will adjust such that both the left and right sides are flush except for the last line of text. The last line can then be left, centered or right aligned, according to whether the piece is left justified, center justified or right justified. Justified text is commonly used in newspapers and magazines.

Lorem ipsum Placeholder or dummy text for the purpose of design mockups or comps to represent content, allowing designs to be evaluated and critiqued without distraction by readable text.

Widow A widow is a short line or single word at the end of a paragraph or column of text.

Orphan An orphan is also a short line or single word. But it appears at the the start of a column or page.

Rag A rag is the uneven margin of a left or right aligned paragraph. Often, very narrow columns can be more ragged than wider columns. Rags can be corrected with adjustments to leading and manual line breaks.

River A river is a visual gap in a paragraph or block of text due to an alignment of spaces. Rivers are often seen in justified text and can be corrected with adjustments to tracking or kerning.


Grid An imaginary set of vertical and horizontal lines on which a layout is composed, giving it order and consistency.

White space Space within a design unoccupied by text or images. White space can be a powerful design convention; it can be used to provide visual relief or to draw attention to important elements of the design.

How to speak graphic design: Improving communication to improve results – Savoir Faire Marketing & CommunicationsPadding In website CSS, padding is the space between an element and its border. More padding means more “air” around an element, and vice versa.

Margin  Another way to create space or air around a website element is by specifying a margin. The  margin is the space around an element outside the border. This is similar to a text wrap in print. Additionally, in print or page layouts, the margin typically refers to page borders and describes the space around elements on the page and the edge of the page.

Gutter The vertical space between columns of text.

Golden Rectangle This is a rectangle whose sides are based on the golden ratio, a number found by dividing a line into two parts so that the longer part divided by the smaller part is also equal to the whole length divided by the longer part. Painters often used the Golden Rectangle to create compositions which were thought to be more pleasing as a result. Graphic designs also follow rules related to the Golden Rectangle to create a more pleasing or impactful experience.

Above/below the fold The fold refers to information printed above or below the fold of a broadsheet newspaper. It has also come to be used to describe information on a website where “above the fold” refers to information seen by a user without scrolling. Anything visible after scrolling is considered “below the fold.” Given variations in screen sizes and resolutions as well as users’ individual window preferences, designing for the fold can be difficult.


Pantone/PMS The Pantone Matching System is a proprietary set of colors. The colors represent inks used by printers.

CMYK/4-Color Process CMYK refers to Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black, or the four primary ink colors used by printers to achieve all other colors. Printing using these four colors, versus PMS colors, is also called 4-color-process.

Hex color Hex or Hexadecimal colors are are codes used by web browsers to display colors. They are based on the RGB color model and are specified as #RRGGBB where R = Red, G = Green and B= Blue.

RGB This color model defines colors as a combination of Red, Green and Blue light in an additive way.

Gradient A gradual progression from one or more colors to another.

Rich black In printing, rich black is created using solid black plus one or more of the other CMYK colors.

Hue This is an actual or pure color (red, yellow, blue) or mixture of two colors (orange, purple, green).

Tint/Shade A tint is achieved by adding white to a color, increasing its lightness. A shade is achieved by adding black to a color, making it darker. The hue remains the same, but the chroma changes.

Palette A range of colors or set of colors for a specific purpose.

Complementary Colors Complimentary colors are pairs of colors situated opposite each other on the color wheel which when combined create a neutral color or gray. Complementary colors, according to conventional wisdom, creates a very pleasing visual experience when used together.

Contrast Contrast represents the difference between the brightest and darkest areas of an image. Increasing contrast increases the range or separation between the light and the dark or the shadows and highlights.

Saturation Saturation represents a range from pure color to gray. A pure color is fully saturated. Saturation can affect the perceived vividness or dullness of a color.


Raster Raster images are usually created in photo editing or “paint” programs such as PhotoShop, Corel Paint or MS Paint. Raster images are made of pixels (little squares) with a number attached to them to assign color information. All the squares are the same size and follow a grid pattern.

While raster images allow you to create incredibly detailed images and precise editing (even one pixel at a time), there are several downfalls when using raster formats. Raster images should not be “scaled up” or enlarged because they lose quality (“look pixelated”). This is because the image only has a set number of pixels assigned to it. When enlarged, the computer must attempt to fill in the missing pixels created upon enlargement, often resulting in an image appearing blurry. Popular raster file formats include jpg/jpeg, psd, tiff, png, and gif.

Vector These images use math to draw shapes using points, lines and curves. When vector images are scaled, the computer only needs to connect the points to fill in the missing information using math. There is no “guessing” and the lines remain smooth rather than appearing “pixelated.” Popular vector file formats include: ai and eps. A PDF can be a vector depending how it was created. Logos should always be created as vector images so that they can be used in many sizes and applications.

Pixel Pixels (short for “picture element” and abbreviated “px”) are the small dots or squares that make up images. Pixels are arranged in a grid; their size is dependent on resolution.

Resolution Resolution is measured in pixel density and is specified as either DPI (dots per inch) or PPI (pixels per inch) both of which refer to the number of pixels in one inch of an image. An image that is 72 DPI or PPI has 72 tiny squares of color information per inch while a 300 DPI image has 300 pixels per inch. This higher pixel density or higher resolution is more suitable for print while the lower resolution is more acceptable for web or digital applications.

Effective Resolution Effective resolution is the resolution an image has when the dimensions change. For example, a 2” x 3” 72 DPI image, when scaled to 6” x 9”, would have a resolution 24 DPI. Scaling a 300 DPI image can have similar issues. While the image appears to be “high resolution” at 300 DPI, if you were to scale it to 6” x 9” the resolution would decrease to 100 DPI.

Logotype Also called a wordmark, a logotype uses words or the name of a business designed using typography and special type treatments.

Logomark Also called a brandmark, a logomark or logo is an identifying mark, symbol or glyph that doesn’t contain the business name. Logomarks can stand alone or appear with a logotype.

Icon A graphical symbol that represents a program, function, action or entity.

Portrait/Landscape The orientation of an image or page. An image or page displayed as portrait is taller than it is wide while an image or page displayed as landscape is wider than it is tall. An additional note: dimensions are commonly written as width by height (W X H). For example, if you were told a page is 5” x 7” you could assume the page is oriented vertically (5 inches wide by 7 inches tall).

Watermark A faint word or image in a sheet of paper to identify the manufacturer. Also, an image or word displayed on a page or graphic to identify the maker, business or other note.

CC0 A license offered by Creative Commons indicating a work has been dedicated to the public domain with the author waiving all rights to the work under copyright law.

Royalty Free This is a common license for stock photography which allows you to purchase an image or asset without having to pay royalties or fees for each use thereafter.

Rights Managed This copyright license allows a one-time use as specified by the license. For example, a typical use might be for a 5,000 copies of a  brochure, distributed in the US. If the user wants to use the image in another way, a new license would need to be purchased.

File types

EPS This file type is a vector format and is used for high-resolution graphics for print. The filetype is fairly universal such that an EPS created in Adobe Illustrator can be opened by Corel Draw.

AI An AI file is an Adobe Illustrator document. A vector format, this file type is scalable and is preferred for logos and other design elements which may need to be scaled up or down for various uses.

JPG (JPEG) This is one of the most common file types especially on the web. It is also commonly used for images in MS Word and MS PowerPoint. JPGs are raster images which are not saleable and which utilize “lossy” compression, which can affect image quality depending on the level of compression.

PNG PNG files are most commonly used online due to their low resolution and lossless data compression. PNG files can also be created with transparent backgrounds making them very versatile.

GIF Most of us have seen GIFs online, usually as an animated set of images presenting a meme. But GIFs have a long history before the meme. GIF files are low resolution files used for web and email. The file size increases as the number of colors increases (up to 256 colors). GIFs are great for images with few colors and gradients or color changes, such as  logos. Like PNGs, GIFs can be created with transparent backgrounds.

PSD This is the native Adobe Photoshop file format. It is a raster format but can contain Adobe Illustrator elements as Smart Objects, shapes, and text which remain scalable until “rasterized.” A designer might save a file as a PSD to retain its layers and vector components to make editing the file easier. PSD files are usually flattened and saved as another format for print or web.

TIF (TIFF) This file format is most commonly used for images, photography and art. It is the preferred format for high quality images.

PDF A “Portable Document Format” is a universal file format that preserves data about images, fonts and colors from a source document regardless of the application used to create it. PDF files are viewable with Acrobat Reader, a free program available to anyone, which allows people to share and to view the file without investment in a suite of expensive software. This makes PDF a popular choice for the proofing and approval process.

InDD An InDD file is an Adobe InDesign file. InDesign is a popular page layout program used by designers to create larger, multi-page documents. Files of other types such as PNG, JPG, TIF, AI, PSD and PDF can be placed in an InDesign document where they can be combined with text and other features to create sophisticated layouts. InDD is similar to Quark XPress, the popular layout program of the 80s and 90s that was used for “desktop publishing.”. Most designers will create layouts in InDD, Quark or even PhotoShop or Illustrator. Never ask a designer to design your brochure in MS Word…never.

There you have it, a not-quite exhaustive list of common things a designer might refer to.

Now, when your designer tells you that she can’t create a “24” x 36” poster using the 150 px wide, 72 DPI product shots from your website,” you’ll understand:

  1. The 72 DPI resolution is ideal for website not print use.
  2. The image only has 72 dots per inch of image data and will lose quality when scaled up in size.
  3. The effective resolution of a 150 px wide image (which is 2.083 inches wide) at 72 DPI will drop significantly when scaled to, for example, six inches wide. In fact, it drops to 25 DPI. And that to print the image at 300 DPI, it would only measure .5 inches wide.
  4. A 24” x 36” poster is orientated vertically or portrait based on width being listed first

It’s still a lot to comprehend. So here are a couple tips on communicating with your designer.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. And try not to get frustrated. Eventually, we will find terms we both understand. And remember, try to be both specific and qualitative in your direction or requests. You don’t need to use the exact terms but it is useful if you can combine adjectives and descriptive words which more clearly convey your vision.

If you say, “this looks weird,” your designer is sure to ask “what looks weird about it? Is it the placement? The color? The size? The font?”  Instead, you might say “this looks a bit cluttered and could use some white space” or “this font looks a little too conservative for this particular use.”

You don’t need to specifically direct the designer on the exact changes you’d like to see (such as a specific font, movement of an element by .0625 inches, etc); feedback which is qualitative allows the designer to explore new options and alternatives to solve the design issues in a unique and creative way that strategically supports your marketing efforts.

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