What is graphic design? All the design terms you should know to design like a pro

Basic Graphic Design Terms You Need to Know

Sometimes, the key to refining your design idea is to think like a designer. No matter how new you are to graphic design, by learning some of the most widely used graphic design terms, you’ll be able to think and design like a pro within minutes—no prior experience required.

Whether we realize it or not, graphic design is everywhere. It's in every logo and every ad we see. In fact, the skill of combining text and images in order to communicate a clear message is integral to how many businesses and individuals market themselves. Whether you’re commuting to work or scrolling through social media, chances are, graphic design has been used to grab your attention and make you feel or react a certain way. By investing time into your design skills, not only are you learning to design, but also, how to communicate through a wide-range of platforms.

In the past, making professional looking designs required years of learning and tricky software. But with Canva, we’ve created easy-to-use tools that take the guesswork out of your designs.

Here are some design terms that will help you design like the professionals do.


This is the process of adjusting the space between characters. By doing this, you are able to achieve balance in the text so that it is easy to understand.

In Canva, adjusting spacing is really simple. All you have to do is click Spacing in the top bar. Next, a drop-down menu will appear. This allows you to edit the Letter Spacing and the Line Height of your text with a simple dragging option.



In this example, adjusting the Letter Spacing and Line Height in the design makes the “i love you so” text clear and easier to read. Click here to download this template.


This term traditionally outlines where your piece will be cut down in the printing process. However, whether you’re creating a design for the web, or for print, making sure you get the right dimensions before starting to design will save you time and effort when you go to download, print and share your work.  

On Canva, when you enter the homepage, you can search and choose the type of design you want to make. Whether it’s a Facebook banner, or a resume, you will then be taken to a canvas, which is a blank scaffold that meets the standard dimension criteria. From there you can design from scratch, or choose a template in the sidebar that also meets these dimensions.

Serif & Sans Serif

Serif is a term that refers to the small edges that stick out from letters. This typeface tends to be used in formal designs like wedding invitations and resumes. Sans serif refers to the typefaces that do not have edges on the letters, and tends to communicate a modern and fresh aesthetic which is perfect for web designs.

Untitled design (1)

Visual hierarchy

 This is how you prioritize the information in your design to make sure the most important information is seen first. Hierarchy is created through a combination of color, composition, font, size and spacing. Hierarchy helps guide the eyes to the right place as soon as they look at the design.

A great way to create visual hierarchy is through the use of font combinations. To find font pairings that look good together, in the sidebar click the Text button. From there, you will be provided with hundreds of designer-approved font pairings that you can use in your design.

Above, we can see how color, font size and spacing have been used to accentuate the main purpose of these Instagram templates. In the first image, the juxtaposition of color brings the hashtag to the forefront of the image. In the second image, the most important information that readers need to know is the largest and placed in the center. 


In design, balance refers to how elements and shapes create a sense of stability on the canvas. One way to create balance is by making sure your elements line up.

When using Canva, you will see that once you add elements to your canvas, purple margins will appear when you place it on the canvas. These help you align items and find true center while you work.


Tone refers to a hue that has been mixed with white or black to express more character in a color. Tone can also be used as an effective tool for communication. Aside from looking good, tone can help communicate certain emotions in your design. For example, pastel colors are lighter colors that signal ideas of playfulness and fun, ideal for a birthday party invitation. Whereas darker colors tend to signal more serious and structured messaging.


These are words or short lines in a paragraph of text. An orphan symbolizes the beginning of this short line and the widow symbolizes the end. This is important in design terms because typically, you want your lines to be similar in length, so that they look unified. You also want to refrain to having a single word in a line by itself—unless of course, it is there for a purpose.

the graphic design terms to know

the graphic design terms to know

In the first example, “to” is sitting on a line by itself. This is an example of an orphan word because the line above it and below it are significantly longer, the design looks fractured. In the second example, “to” has been move up to the first line. Now, both lines are even and the design looks more unified.


Scale is about assessing how elements look in relation to one another. For example, placing a large apple illustration next to a much smaller orange, has the ability to make your design look awkward, because in real life, they tend to be around the same size. This is particularly important when you’re trying to communicate quantifiable values in graphs.

to Celebrate our Marriage (1)

to Celebrate our Marriage

In the first image, the utensils next to the barbeque are smaller than they would be in real life compared to the barneque. This makes the image look awkward. In the second image, we can see that scale has been used to assess how big the barbeque utensils should look in comparison the barbeque.

White Space

 This term refers to the parts in your design that you’ve left blank. Some may assume that a lot of white space is a bad thing. However, white space is a great way to let your designs stand out and provide contrast to the elements you’ve chosen to place in your design.

Business cards are a great examples of how white space can be used to create professional looking designs. Click here to see thousands of business card templates available on Canva. 


This term refers to the clarity of an image. This is particularly important in design, as low resolution can leave your designs looking blurry and pixelated. When printing your design, the resolution of images needs to be higher compared to designs that are going online.

To create a clear, high-resolution design, there are few factors to consider. Firstly, using the right dimensions will ensure your design is clear when uploaded or printed. Secondly, using high-resolution images within your design will minimize the risk of blurry images within your designs.


In design, a color palette is a selection of colors that you use throughout the process in order to create visual unity. While some may assume that the more colors you have the better, too much color can make your design disjointed and chaotic.

In Canva, we make choosing a color palette really easy. Firstly, we have Canva Color Palette Generator. By simply uploading an image you would like to use, we generate a palette for you to use in your design within moments. Once you’ve started designing in Canva, we also have a color tab at the top of the homepage. Once you click on the color option, you will be shown a drop-down menu that separates color options into: Document Colors, Canva Colors, Secondary Canva Palette, Gradient shades and a Default Palette.

Untitled design

We also have Canva Color: your complete guide to colors, how to use them and what they mean. Simply click the colors you are drawn to and you’ll be offered an in-depth explanation of what the color works best for, color combinations and various shades you can work with.


While many think this is a design that uses only black, white and grey, monochrome is in fact any palette comprised of one hue and its associated tones, tints, and shades. By sticking to this, designers are able to create unified designs with colors that are guaranteed to work together.

Body Copy

This refers to the body of text you may use in your design. This differs from other elements like headlines and footnotes. This also refers to where the most information is held and is common in blog posts or, infographics.

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