Graphic Design Vocab 101 - VantagePoint

Graphic Design Vocab 101

You just got an email from a designer peppered with terms like “leaf,” “gutter” and “rivers,” and maybe you are wondering what foliage, rain-collectors, and streams of water have to do with your project. Or maybe you are completely lost as they throw around words like “kerning” and “vector.” If you don’t deal with these words every day and don’t know what they mean, I’m guessing you resort to one of two responses: act like you know what they’re talking about or get rather frustrated.

Every profession has specialized vocabulary, and graphic design is no different. While it’s not out of the realm of possibilities for you to immerse yourself in design courses and books, no one is expecting you to go out and learn all there is to know about graphic design in order to understand the lingo. However, it would be beneficial to familiarize yourself with some of the more common design terms.

With jargon thrown around on both sides of the fence between agency and client, you are bound to run into unintentional miscommunication. Projects can be prolonged unnecessarily, confusion can lead to mistakes, and misunderstandings can strain relationships. I’m sure we all want to do what we can to prevent these miscommunications and keep projects running as smoothly as possible, so maybe it’s time we “define our terms.”

There are many reputable sources that have created lists and cheat sheets of design vocabulary, and you can always Google the definitions of words you don’t know. However, I’ve gathered a handful of graphic design terms and created a quick list to get you started.

  • Ascender – the portion of the letter rising above the x-height (‘b,’ ‘d’ and ‘f’)
  • Bleed – printing that extends off the edges of a page
  • Descender – the portion of the letter extending below the baseline (‘g,’ ‘j’ and ‘p’)
  • Font – a complete combination of characters (letters, numbers and symbols) with a specific style and size — often erroneously used interchangeably with “typeface” (Times New Roman Bold Italic)
  • Gutter – the white space created by the inner margins of two facing pages in a book, magazine or other bound pamphlet
  • Hue – variation of color (red, blue, green, purple, etc.)
  • Kerning – distance between two individual characters of type — adjusted to create a more visually balanced space
  • Leading – vertical spacing between lines of type
  • Leaf – individual piece of paper in a printed piece
  • Noise – undesirable random colored pixels in an image giving it a grainy quality
  • Orphan – the last line of a paragraph separated on its own at the top of the next column (should be avoided)
  • Rivers – white gaps between words in justified columns of type; connection of the gaps looks like rivers of white space in the paragraph
  • Tracking – adjustment of overall distance between characters in a body of text
  • Typeface – a full series of fonts; all styles and sizes of a set of characters (Times New Roman)
  • Value – degree of lightness or darkness in a color — adding white to a color creates a tint; adding black to a color creates a shade
  • Vector – graphics created with points, lines, and curves, allowing them to be infinitely scaled larger and smaller without loss of quality (images are made of square pixels, so edges of objects appear jagged when enlarged; edges of vector graphics are smooth and remain smooth when enlarged)
  • Widow – last word of a paragraph appearing on a line on its own (should be avoided)
  • X-height – average height of lowercase letters omitting ascenders and descenders (usually the height of a lowercase ‘x’ as the term suggests)

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I hope you found it helpful and even learned a new word or two. More importantly, I hope you are better equipped to avoid miscommunication so that projects flow as efficiently as possible.

Looking to expand your understanding of design vocab even further? Check out Canva’s list of terms for non-designers. They’ve even included pictures to help illustrate each term. As always, we’d love to hear from you, so come back and let us know what you learned in the comments!