Graphic Design ABCs: A Glossary of Basic Design Terms

by . December 4th, 2014

UPDATE: This post was originally published on September 22, 2007. We’ve updated the list and added images. Enjoy, Creatives!

Designers have their own language. There are words that only we understand. Sometimes we don’t really know their exact definitions; we simply use them out of familiarity.

It’s about time someone put them out there. The YTD team updated this glossary of graphic design terms for design newbies and experienced artists alike.


Acrobat A product developed by Adobe systems to create PDF (Portable Document Format) files. Acrobat is an independent means of creating, viewing, and printing documents.

Airbrush A propellant using compressed air that to spray a liquid, such as paint, and ink. Often used in used in illustration and photo retouching.

Alignment The adjustment of arrangement or position in lines of a text or an image — left, right, centered, etc.

Alpha Channel The process of incorporating an image with a background to create the appearance of partial transparency. Alpha channels are used to create masks that allow you to confine or protect parts of an image you want to apply color, opacity, or make other changes.

Analog Proof (Prepress Proof) A proof that uses ink jet, toner, dyes, overlays, photographic, film, or other methods to give a an idea of what the finished product should look like.

Anchor Point Anchor points allow the user to manipulate a path’s shape or direction by clicking the point and moving it in a direction. They appear along the beginning of a path, at every curve, and at the end of a path. You can also add or subtract anchor points on a path.

Animated GIF A small animation based on continuous GIF images, giving the impression of movement or action.

Animation Generating movement by displaying a series of images using frames.

Art Director The individual responsible for the selection, execution, production, so on, of graphic art.

Asymmetrical This is when graphics and/or text are not identical on both sides of a central line.


Bad Break Refers to widows or orphans in text copy; any break that causes awkward reading.

Bar The horizontal or vertical line drawn through a grapheme (unit of writing, such as a letter). Sometimes added to distinguish one grapheme from another.

Baseline An imaginary line upon which letters sit and descenders extend below the baseline.

Bevel A tool in design software for drawing angles or modifying the surface of your work to a certain inclination.

Bezier Curve A parametric curve that represents a vector path in computer graphics. They are frequently drawn using a pen tool and by placing anchor points which can be controlled to form shapes or lines.

Bitmap A series of bits that forms a structure representing a graphic image. The color of each pixel is individually defined.

Bleed When a graphic object extends through another in an unwanted manner. It is then trimmed so there is no chance for a white line on the edges.

Body Type The typeface used in the main text of a printed matter.

Border The decorative design or edge of a surface, line, or area that forms it’s outer boundary.

Branding The process involved in creating a unique name and image for a product in the consumers‘ mind, mainly through advertising campaigns with a consistent theme.



Canvas Size Allows you to change the complete size of the document without adjusting the contents of the document

Clipping Path A tool or shape that’s used to cut out an image.

Cloning Pixels A function that allows you to replicate pixels from one place to another.

CMYK Stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key color (aka — black);  this color model (also called process color, four color) is a subtractive color model  used in color printing.

Color Palette A set of colors that make up the total range of colors used in graphic computers.

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.

Complementary Colors The colors that are opposite of each other when viewed on the color wheel.

Contrast The difference in color found between the light and dark parts of an image.

Copy Copy refers to editorial text supplied for incorporation into a design or website.

Crop A tool that removes portions of an image. It is usually used in digital photography.


Descender The part of a lowercase letter that stretches below the body.

Die Cut A die that cut shapes or holes in different materials to make the design stand out.

Dingbat An ornament used in typesetting to add space around an image or a symbol.

Dodge This is when you lighten or reduce part of an image by shading.

Dot Gain When the ink hits the paper, it is absorbered and it somewhat spreads out.

Double Page Spread A double page spread is a layout that extends across two pages.

DPI (Dots Per Inch) A term to describe the measure of sharpness within an image.

Drop Shadow Is a visual effect added to an image to give the impression the image is raised above the background by duplicating the shadow.

Dummy A prototype or mock-up of a book, page, or any project designed to resemble and serve as a substitute for the real thing.

Duotone A method of printing an image using two colors, usually black and a spot color.


Ear The rounded part of the lowercase letters such as ‘g’ and ‘q’.

Element Any distinct part of a layout such as the logo, headline, images, or borders.

Embedding Process of transferring all the data of a font or image into the file itself.

Emboss To give a three-dimensional effect to a text or an image by using highlights and shadows on the sides of the illustration.

Engraving To print designs by cutting the surface of a metal plate.

EPS Stands for Encapsulated Post Script. This is a graphics file format used to transfer PostScript documents that contain an image, within another PostScript document.

Etch To imprint a design onto the surface of a plate by using a chemical such as acid.

Export To save a file in a format supported by other programs.

Extenders The part of a letter which extends above the mid line, such as ‘b’ or ‘d’.

E-Zine Stands for electronic magazine. Refers to the name of a website that is represented by a print magazine; an web-based magazine that you can subscribe to.


Feathering A tool used in graphic design software that makes the edges of an image appear softer.

Fill A tool used to fill selected parts of an image with a selected color.

Filter A filter is a pre-created effect that can be applied to images to acquire a certain look.

Flexography A printing technique where printing plates are made of rubber or soft plastic material and then stretched around a drum on the press that rotates.

Flyer A single sheet of paper handed out or posted on a wall to advertise or announce something.

Focal Point In graphic design terms, the focal point is where you want to draw the reader’s or viewer’s eye.

Font A complete combination of characters created in a specific type, style, and size. The set of characters in a font entails the letter set, the number set, and all of the special characters and marks you get when pressing the shift key or other command keys on your keyboard.

Four-Color Process A printing technique that creates colors by combining, cyan, magenta, yellow, and black.

Frames Refers to animation. A frame is a single graphic in a distribution of graphic images. The speed of an animation is judged by frames per second.


Gang To combine multiple jobs on one print plate in order to reduce costs and setup charges.

Gamut The range of colors available to a particular output device or a given color space, such as a laser printer or an image setter. If the color range is too wide for that specific device, it is indicated as ‘out of gamut’.

Gatefold A type of fold in which the paper is folded inward to form four or more panels.

GIF (Graphics Interchange Format) GIF images display up to 256 colors. It supports animation and allows an individual palette of 256 color for each frame. The color limitation makes the GIF format inappropriate for reproducing color photographs and other images with consistent color. GIF images are compressed using the LZW lossless data compression method to decrease the size of the file without corrupting the visual quality.

Gradient A function in graphic software that permits the user to fill an object or image with a smooth transition of colors.

Graphic Design Visual communication using text or images to represent an idea or concept. It is also a term used for all activities relating to visual design, including web design, logo design, etc.

Graphics Visual presentations that feature printed messages that are clear and appealing.

Grayscale Grayscale images consist of black, white, no color, and up to 256 shades of gray.

Grid Is a two-dimensional format made up of a set of horizontal and vertical axes used to structure content.

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

Halftone (1) A photograph or scan of a consistent tone image to alter the image into halftone dots. (2) A photograph or continuous-tone illustration that has been halftoned and that is displayed on film, paper, printing plate, or the final printed product.


Halo Effect A vague shadow sometimes surrounding halftone dots printed. Also called halation. The halo itself is called a fringe.

Hard Copy The permanent reproduction of the output of a computer or printer. For example: teleprinter pages, continuous printed tapes, computer printouts, etc.

Header The text which appears at the top of a printed page

Headline A large text illustrating the opening statement used in a layout.

Highlights Lightest part of a photograph or halftone, as opposed to mid-tones and shadows.

High-Resolution Image An image with an extreme level of sharpness/clarity.

HLS A color space that stands for hue, lightness, and saturation.

HSB A color space stands for hue, saturation, and brightness.

Hue One of the three primary attributes of color. A hue is a variety of color such as red, blue, green, or yellow.


I-beam The form the pointer assumes when the text tool is chosen.

Ideograph (also ideogram) A character or symbol representing an idea without expressing the punctuation of a specific word or words for it.

Image Map An image map is an HTML document containing multiple clickable hyperlinks.

Imagesetter Laser output device for producing professional-quality text with extremely high resolution.

Imposition A layout of pages on mechanicals or flats so they will appear in proper order after press sheets are folded and bound.

Indents A set in or back from the margin.

Initial Cap Big, capital letters which are found at the beginning of paragraphs or chapters.

Inkjet Printer A printer that electrostatically sprays tiny ink droplets onto paper.

Invert Inversion of the tonal values or colors of an image. On an inverted image, black becomes white, blue becomes orange, etc.

Italic The style of letters that usually slope to the right. Used for emphasis within text.


Jog To arrange sheets of paper into a compact pile.

JPEG (Joint Photographic Electronic Group) A common process for compressing digital images.

Justify To make a line of type a certain length by spacing out the words and numbers.


Kerning Modifying the horizontal space between letters.

Keyframe Any frame in which a specific aspect of an item (its size, location, color, etc.) is specifically defined.

Keyline A keyline is another name for a rule, line, or even a frame border. Keyline options can be set through design software applications to adjust the width, to be solid or dotted, or to show different patterns.


Layers A tool within graphic software that permits the user to gather, organize, and re-edit their artwork.

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

Leaf One piece of paper in a publication.

Legend A table inside a project that lists vital illustrations or instructions; footnote that helps users better understand information.

Letterpress A technique of printing where movable type is inked and then pressed against paper to create an impression. Also called block printing.

Lossless Refers to a form of data compression where the detail is maintained and no data is lost after file downsizing. The lossless compression method is often used in TIFF and GIF formats.

Lossy A form of data compression where detail is deleted as the file size is decreased. JPEG is an example of a lossy compression method.

Lower Case The smaller form of letter used in type.

Low-Resolution Image A low-quality scan made from a photograph or the like.

Luminosity The brightness of an area arranged by the amount of light it reflects or diffuses.


Magic Wand Tool A tool in graphic software that permits the user to select fractions of an image such as areas with the same color.

Margins Guidelines in a page layout software that shows a user the body copy areas. It also allows the user to indicate the dimensions. Margins are not supposed to be printed.

Mask See clipping path.

Master Page A property found in a page layout software that allows the user to create a constant page layout. Repeating elements—like page numbers—are created once on a master. This permits the user to stay clear of adding the numbers for each page manually.

Matte Finish Non-glossy finish on photographic paper or coated printing paper.

Mean Line Also called x-height. The imaginary point of all lowercase characters without ascenders.

Midtones In a photograph or illustration, tones composed by dots between 30 percent and 70 percent of coverage, as opposed to highlights and shadows.

Mock Up A recreation of the original printed material; could possibly contain instructions or directions.

Modern An altered version of Old Style. these high-contrast letters have heavy, untapered stems and light serifs. Originally established by Firmin Didot and Giambattista Bodoni during the late 18th to early 19th centuries.

Multimedia Offering the use of various communications such as text, sound, and still or moving images.


Negative Space Also known as white space. The area of a page that doesn’t contain images or words. 

Neon Glow A type of glow on a graphic image that gives the appearance of neon lighting.

News Print Paper used in printing newspapers; not considered a high-quality paper.

Noise Noise is a term used to describe the development of pixels that contain random colors.


Oblique A Roman typeface which slants to the right. Often confused with italics.

Offset Printing A printing method that transfers ink from a plate to a blanket to paper as opposed to directly inking from plate to paper.

Old Style A style of type characterized by slight contrast between light and heavy strokes and slanting serif.

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.

OpenType A font format created by Adobe and Microsoft. Open Type font can include a set of glyphs defined as True Type or Type 1 curves.

Orphan Line The first line of a paragraph appearing on its own at the bottom on a page with the remaining part of the paragraph appearing on the next page.

Outline This can refer to the outside edge of a font or the outer edge of a vector graphic image drawn in a package such as Illustrator or Freehand.

Overlay Layer of material taped to a mechanical photo or proof. Acetate overlays are used to divide colors by having some type or art on them instead of on the mounting board. Tissue overlays are used to carry instructions about the underlying copy and to protect the base art.

Overprint To print additional material or another color over a previously printed image.

Over Run Additional printed material beyond order. Over run policy differs in the printing industry, usually within 10% of the original quantity run.


Page Layout Deals with the setup and style of content on a page. An example of a page layout is the pages in magazines or brochures.

Page Size A setting that allows the user to define the size of the page they are creating their artwork on.

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.

PDF Stands for Portable Document Format. Developed by Adobe Systems in its software program, Adobe Acrobat, to serve as a universal browser. Files can be downloaded over the web and viewed page by page, provided the user’s computer has installed the application.

Pica A unit of measurement for type. Commonly used for typewriters.

Pixel The smallest picture content that can be individually assigned a color.

Plate A piece of paper, metal, plastic, or rubber carrying an image to be duplicated using a printing press.

PNG Portable Network Graphics format. PNG (usually pronounced “ping”), is used for lossless compression. The PNG format displays images without jagged edges while keeping file sizes rather small, making them popular on the web. PNG files are generally larger than GIF files.

PPI Pixels Per Inch. A measurement of the resolution of a computer display.

Primary Colors The primary colors are put together to produce the full range of other colors (non-primary colors), within a color model. The primary colors for the additive color model is red, green, and blue. The primary colors for the subtractive color model is cyan, magenta, and yellow.


Quark Express Quark Express is page layout application usually used for magazines and brochures.

Quick Mask A filter in Photoshop in which a translucent colored mask covers selective areas of an image.

Quick Time QuickTime was developed by Apple Computer. It’s built into the Macintosh operating system computers and is used for displaying and editing animation.


Ragged The imbalanced alignment of text lines. Ragged is the opposite of flush. A text block may be formatted to be evenly flush (align) right and unevenly aligned (ragged) on the left.

Rasterize An image is said to be rasterized when transformed from vector image to a bitmapped image. When opening a vector image in a bitmap-based editing program, you are generally presented with a dialog box of options for rasterizing the image.

Resample A function accessible in image editing that permits the user to change the resolution of the image while keeping its pixel count intact.

Resolution The resolution of an image is an important factor in deciding the attainable output quality. The higher the resolution of an image, the less pixelated it will be and the curves of the image will appear smoother.

RGB (Red, Green, Blue) RGB is the color model used to project color on a computer monitor. By combining these three colors, a large percentage of the visible color spectrum can be represented.

Rich Media Rich media are banner ads that use technology more developed than standard GIF animation. For example: Flash, Shockwave, streaming video, etc.

Right Justified Type aligned with its right margin. Also known as “flush right.”

RIP (Raster Image Processor) Transfers fonts and graphics into raster images, which are used by the printer to draw onto the page.

Rivers A river is a typographic term for the ugly white gaps that can appear in justified columns of type when there is too much space between words on concurrent lines of text. Rivers are particularly common in narrow columns of text, where the type size is relatively large.

Royalty-Free Photos Intellectual property like photos and graphic images that are sold for a single standard fee. These can be used repeatedly by the purchaser only, but the company that sold the images usually still owns all the rights to it.


Sans Serif A style of typeface that means “without feet.” Usual sans serif typefaces include Arial, Helvetica, AvantGarde, and Verdana.

Saturation The intensity of hue. The quality of difference from a gray of the same lightness or brightness.

Scale A design or program is said to scale if it is relevantly efficient and reasonable when applied to larger situations.

Screen Printing Technique of printing by using a squeegee to force ink through an assembly of mesh fabric and a stencil.

Selection Selection refers to an area of an image that is isolated so it can be edited while the rest of the image is protected.

Shadow Detail Shadow detail refers to the amount of detail held in the dark areas of an image. If the shadow is lightened too much in an attempt to expose more detail, you run the risk of reducing the overall contrast of the image.

Sharpen To reduce in color strength, as when halftone dots become smaller; opposite of “thicken” or “dot spread.”

Small Caps Capital letters that are about the same height as the tvpeface’s x-height. Some software programs automatically create their own small caps, but true small caps are often only found in expert typefaces.

Spread (1) Two pages that face each other and are created as one visual or production unit. (2) Method of slightly enlarging the size of an image to make a hairline trap with another image. Also called fatty.

Subtractive Color A term defining the three subtractive primary colors: cyan, magenta, and yellow. As opposed to the three additive colors: red, blue, and green.


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

Text Wrap A term used in page layout software, specifically to the way text can be shaped around the edges of images.

Thumbnail A thumbnail is a reduced-size version of the original image.

TIFF (Tagged Image File Format) A graphic file format used for storing images . TIFF is a commonly used file format for high color depth images.

Tint A color is made lighter by adding white, this is called a tint.

Tolerance Tolerance is the range of pixels a tool in graphic software functions in. Or the range of shade or color pixels a Magic Wand selects, etc.

Tonal Distribution Tones can be redistributed during the scanning or image editing process. To lighten dark images or to darken light images.

Trim Size The size of the printed material in its finished stage.

True Color System A true color system is a 24-plane graphics sub-system which composes the entire range of 16.7 million colors.

Typeface A typeface consists of a series of fonts and a full range of characters such as, numbers, letters, marks, and punctuation.

Typography The art of arranging type—which includes letters, numbers, and symbols—so that it is pleasing to the eye. This includes not only the font that is used but how it is arranged on the page: letter by letter, size, line spacing, etc. 


Uncoated Paper This is paper that doesn’t have a coating applied to it for smoothness.

Unsharp Mask A method used to heighten the sharpness or focus of images by selecting and increasing the contrast of pixels alongside the edges of images.

Uppercase Also known as capital letters, they are the larger characters in a typeface.

UV Coating A glossy coating applied to the paper surface and dried using ultraviolet light. It is glossy and adds a certain level of protection to the printed material.


Value This refers to the degree of lightness or darkness of a color.

Varnish This is a liquid coating applied to a surface for protection and for a glossy effect.

Vector Graphic Vector graphics allow the designer to expand or reduce the vector graphic in size without any loss in quality using curves, points, lines, and polygons.

Verso The left-hand page of a book or a manuscript.


Watermark Translucent design impressed on paper created during manufacture, it is visible when held to light.

Web-Safe Colors A color table containing only 216 out of a possible 256 colors, used to accurately match the colors of graphics and pictures in cross-platform web browsers.

Weight The range of a stroke’s width. Also knows as semi-bold, light, and bold. Some typeface families have many weights like ultra-bold and extra-light. Associated to the heaviness of the stroke for a specific font, such as Light, Regular, Book, Demi, Heavy, Black, and Extra Bold.

White Point One of a handful of reference illuminants used to define the color “white”. Based on the application, different definitions of white are needed to give sufficient results.

White Point Adjustment A white point adjustment establishes the amount of highlighted detail in an image.

Widow Line A single line of a paragraph at the bottom of a page or column.

Width Refers to whether the basic typeface has been lengthened or compressed horizontally. The typical variations are Condensed, Normal, or Extended.

Word Processing Program A software application package that assists in creating, editing, and printing

Work and Turn This is when you print on one side of a sheet of paper, then you turn the sheet over from left to right and print the other side. The same gripper and plate are used for this process.

WYSIWYG What You See Is What You Get. This is an approximate screen representation of what the final printed image will look like.


X-Height This is the height of the lowercase letters that do not have ascenders or decenders, such as a, c, e and mm


Yellow One of the subtractive primary colors of CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) that is used in four-color process inks.


Zip Stands for Zone Information Protocol: This is a way of compressing files into a smaller size, so they can be transferred with more ease over the Internet or any other means.

Zoom Most design software lets you zoom in or out on an image to get a closer or farther away look. Zooming in is especially useful when photo retouching or working on tiny details.