50 design terms explained simply for non-designers


Getting thrown into the world of graphic design(opens in a new tab or window) can sometimes feel like learning a new language. Let's take a look at 50 commonly used design words, shall we?

Kerning(opens in a new tab or window), tracking, warm colors, cool colors, CMYK, RGB, OMG. There are a lot of technical terms thrown around and it can get confusing at the best of times. But, if you’re finding yourself confused, never fear—we’re here to help.

So, whether you’re a new designer yourself, are just a little curious, or are simply trying to decipher your designer’s emails, sit back and relax as we break down some common terms for you.

01. Typography

The artistic arrangement of type in a readable and visually appealing way. Typography usually concerns the design and use of various typefaces in a way that helps to better visually communicate ideas.

popular design terms


02. Body Copy

The main part of text in your design or publication – the written website content, the book contents, even this type you’re reading right now, it’s all body copy.

popular design terms


03. Display Type

Type that is designed with the objective of attracting attention. Think of movie titles on posters, article titles in magazines, newspaper headlines, etc.

popular design terms


04. 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.

popular design terms

Why Every Design Needs Three Levels Of Typographic Hierarchy

05. Kerning

The adjustment of space between two characters in your type. Kerning is s common design term and usually aims to achieve a more proportional and pleasing balance of space between each character.

popular design terms

06. Leading

Pronounced ‘ledding’, leading refers to the space between lines of type. Overly tight leading can cause tension and overlap, making the content unreadable, and too-loose leading can equally make the type appear disjointed, so we usually try to find a nice balance between the two.

popular design terms

07. 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.

popular design terms

08. X-Height

The average height of lowercase letters. X-height gets its name as this value is usually exemplified by looking at the height of the letter x in any given typeface.

Read more about X-Height and other typographic terms in the Design School’s visual guide to typography.(opens in a new tab or window)

popular design terms

09. Ascender

The part of a lowercase letter that extends above the x-height. Some common examples of this are ‘b’, ‘d’, ‘f’, etc.

Read more about Ascenders and other typographic terms in the Design School’s visual guide to typography.(opens in a new tab or window)

popular design terms

10. Descenders

The part of a lowercase letter that extends below the x-height. Some common examples of this are ‘g’, ‘j’, ‘p’, etc.

Read more about Ascenders and other typographic terms in the Design School’s visual guide to typography.(opens in a new tab or window)

popular design terms

11. Orphans and Widows

This design term, refers to the words or short lines that appear by themselves at the top or bottom of a column of type. It’s always a good (and easy) idea to check over your body copy before finishing up, and manually removing these when they appear.

popular design terms

20 Typography Mistakes Every Beginner Makes – And How You Can Avoid Them

12. 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.

popular design terms

Abraham Lincoln by Frances MacLeod

13. Sans Serif Typeface

A typeface without the small decorative serif strokes. Sans serifs tend to look more modern, stylish, and cleaner than their serif counterparts.


Maven Pro by Joe Prince

14. Script Typeface

A typeface that mimics cursive handwriting. Script typefaces tend to look elegant, personal, and/or more casual, depending on how embellished they are.

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Mission Script by James T. Edmondson

15. Slab Serif Typeface

A typeface with thicker, blockier serifs, very commonly used in headlines and titles, but rarely in body copy. Slab serifs tend to look sturdier, stronger, and bolder.

popular design terms

Carton by Nick McCosker

16. Legibility

The measure of how easy it is to distinguish one letter from the next. Legibility has a lot to do with your choice of typeface and how you use it, i.e. simpler serif or sans serif typefaces are generally better for smaller body copy.

popular design terms

17. Alignment

The lining up of elements to achieve balance, order, and a more logical layout. There are also four common types of typographical alignment – center, left, right, and justified, each with their own time and place for application.

popular design terms

18. Pull Quote

A short quote or excerpt pulled from the main text and used as a visual element to help highlight important ideas and draw interest to the piece. Pull quotes are very common in magazine design.

popular design terms

Mikael Fløysand

19. Palette

The selection of colors that you choose to use for your design.

For more tips on building a beautiful color palette check out these color secrets from designers(opens in a new tab or window).

popular design terms


20. Monochrome

A color scheme built out of only one color, including lighter and darker tones of that color.

popular design terms

21. Analogous

A color scheme built out of three colors that are next to each other on the color wheel.

popular design terms

22. Complementary

A color scheme built out of two colors that sit opposite each other on the color wheel.

popular design terms

23. Triadic

A color scheme built out of three colors equally spaced around the color wheel.

popular design terms

24. CMYK

CMYK or ‘Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Key’, is a color model that is used for print purposes. CMYK is a subtractive color, this means that we begin with white and end up with black. So, as we add more color, the result turns darker.

popular design terms

LCI Paper

25. RGB

RGB or ‘Red, Green, Blue’ is a color model that is used for on-screen purposes. RGB is an additive color, meaning that when mixing colors, we start with black and end up with white as more color is added.

popular design terms

LCI Paper

26. Pantone (PMS)

The ‘Pantone Matching System’ is a standardized system of colors for printing. Every Pantone shade is numbered, making it much easier for people to reference and identify exact shades of color.

popular design terms

Neverland Studio

27. Warm Colors

Colors that make you think of heat and warmth, like reds, yellows, oranges, etc. These colors tend to feel cozier, friendlier, and more cheerful. You are able to add more warm tones to an image or photograph by increasing the orange tones in your image.

popular design terms

28. Cool Colors

Colors that make you think of colder temperatures, like blues, greens, violets, etc. These colors tend to create a calm and soothing atmosphere. You are able to add cooler tones to an image or photograph by increasing the blue tones in your image.


29. Color Theory

The study of how colors make people feel and respond. Certain colors tend to evoke certain subconscious emotions and feelings in people – for example, we tend to associate blue with trust and dependability, hence why so many corporate businesses have blue logos and branding.

popular design terms

The Marketer’s Guide To Designing A Memorable Brand That Catches On

30. Gradient

A gradual change in color from one tone into another. Two common types of gradients are the linear gradient where each color sits on opposite sides of the frame, and a radial gradient where one color sits in the middle, and another at the edge.

popular design terms

31. Opacity

The degree of transparency an element has. The lower the opacity, the more transparent an element is.

popular design terms

32. 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. Whereas lower resolution images or graphic tend to appear blurry, pixelated or muddy.

popular design terms

33. Contrast

The degree of difference between two juxtaposed elements. Some other common types of contrast are dark vs. light, thick vs. thin, rough vs. smooth, etc.

popular design terms

34. Saturation

The degree of intensity and vividness of a color. For example, a low-saturation color may appear pale and faded, whereas a more heavily saturated color may appear more vibrant and colorful.

popular design terms

35. Stock Photo

A professionally shot photograph available online for licensing. Stock photos are usually used in lieu of hiring a photographer, or if a designer cannot access the images they need from their own inventory of photographs.

For a guide to the very best places to find beautiful, free, high quality stock imagery, be sure to check out this list of 74 sites!(opens in a new tab or window)

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Unsplash – Olenka Kotyk

36. Rule Of Thirds

Rule of Thirds is a theory that if you divide your image with two vertical and two horizontal lines, the areas where your lines intersect will become focal points of your design.

popular design terms

Photography Mad

37. Brand

A collection of concepts, ideas, and emotions that encapsulate your company’s values and ethos. A brand is a mix of all the fine conceptual details that make up the company, from the content the brand promotes, the way employees talk, the words used, the values upheld, etc.

For more information on building a brand that sticks, be sure to check out these 12 simple steps to creating a memorable brand.(opens in a new tab or window)

popular design terms

12 Simple Strategies All Memorable Brands Use To Leave a Lasting Impression

38. Brand Identity

The visualization of your brand (see definition above) in a way that represents the values, content and ethos of the company. This can include things like a logo, business cards, letterheads, uniforms, packaging design, etc.


39. Logotype

A type of logo where the name of the company designed in a visual way. Think of brands like Google, Ikea, Disney.

popular design terms

Creative Bloq

40. Brandmark

A type of logo design where a symbol is used in place of the company name, i.e. the Apple logo. Brandmarks are commonly accompanied by a logotype, but not always.

popular design terms

Creative Bloq

41. Thumbnail Sketch

No, not the kind of thumbnail on your hand. Thumbnail sketches are rough drawings of potential design concepts or solutions. These sketches are used to visualize and grow various ideas and concepts by hand before moving to the screen.

popular design terms

Adham Dannaway

42. Grid

A framework made up of evenly divided, intersecting columns and rows. Grids help designers to align and arrange elements in a quicker, neater, and more consistent way.

Ready to get creative with grids? Here are 5 design ideas using grids.(opens in a new tab or window)

popular design terms

20 Design Rules You Should Never Break

43. Scale

The change of size of an object while keeping its shape and proportions intact. Large scale can create drama, and smaller scale can create fine detail.

popular design terms

Erin Fakler

44. Texture

When it comes to design, texture can refer to the actual tactile surface of a design, or the visual tactility of your design. By layering textured images and graphics over your design, you can often create a visual appearance of tactility that mirrors actual texture.

popular design terms


45. 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.

popular design terms

Chris Ballasiotes

46. Margins

The space around the edge of a page. By increasing or decreasing the size of your page’s margins you can create a more calming or a more tense design respectively. The example below has larger, more open margins.

popular design terms

João Oliveira

47. Die Cut

The process of cutting areas of your printed design in various shapes to create unique effects. Diecuts are created after printing and are classed as a finishing process.

popular design terms


48. Foil Stamping

The heat-pressing application of foil to certain parts of a design to give them a shiny, metallic finish.

popular design terms


49. Letterpressing

The process of using metal plates to press a design into the surface of paper to create dimensional indentations.

popular design terms

Eli Kleppe

50. Lorem Ipsum

Also known as ‘dummy copy’, lorem ipsum is a generic filler text used when the real text is not available. It’s used as placeholder text to demonstrate how a design will look once the real body copy has been included.

50-lorem ipsum

LRB Blog

Well, there you have it, a small dose of some of the more common terms that you might encounter when working with (or as) a graphic designer.

Whether you’re a designer or not, do keep in mind that while the terminology is important, it’s not the be all and end all. Definitions change and adapt to different circumstances, so keep your eyes peeled for new concepts and ideas, keep an open mind, and ask questions! There’s never any shame in asking others to help clarify any particular concept that you’re unsure of. Or, if all else fails, Google away to your heart’s content.

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