Glossary of design terms

The text at top has anti-aliasing applied. The bottom sample does not.

A horizontal strip of white space that separates elements vertically. A horizontal internal margin.
A method of diminishing the jagged edges around an image caused by square pixels, especially type. The edges of the image are surrounded by shades of color with values that fall between the image and its background.
The division of form and space.The designer must organize elements in ways that are:
  • Coherent: The page and the whole document must hang together and make sense as a whole.
  • Meaningful: The pages should reveal a hierarchy or a logical progression.
  • Functional: The page design should aid readability and navigation.
A common printing term for any image, such as a photograph or a graphic.
An axis is a line established by two points in space. Establishing an axis on a page is the simplest way to organize space.

Two types of balance

LEFT: Willam Morris, Colophon at the end of The Nature of Gothic by John Ruskin (1892). This is an example of informal balance. RIGHT: Shephard Fairey, concert poster (2008). Fairey often uses formal balance with wildly contemporary elements. The dashed line on each page represents the main axis.

The distribution of elements in a design so that the composition has unity and feels at rest within itself.
background color
The area of a display screen or printed area not covered by characters and graphics.
bit map
A representation of graphic images as rows of dots. The value of each dot (whether it is filled in or not) is stored in computer memory as bits of data (0 and 1, or on and off). The density of the dots, known as the resolution, determines how sharply the image is represented. This is often expressed in dots per inch (DPI) or simply by the number of rows and columns, such as 640 by 480.


Artwork found in a book that could be clipped out and used in a publication. Today it is usually sold as electronic artwork files that can be placed in a publication.

The color palette for University of St. Thomas Web sites.

A powerful element in communicating symbolic meanings, emotions to attract the reader’s attention. It is the visual sensation produced in the brain when the eye views various wavelengths of light.
color palette
A limited selection of colors used by an organization as part of a graphic identity system.
A space on a page that is mathematically defined to be a certain height and width where graphics and text are placed.
comprehensive layout
A “comp” is a full-color layout that gives the client a more detailed look at the finished product.
The use of color, size or space to emphasize one element in a design from another. The controlled use of contrast is an important tool for establishing order and hierarchy on a page.

A duotone using black and sepia colored inks. It is made by adding a second color to a black and white image.

Deleting unwanted parts of an image to improve composition and eliminate unwanted space.
DPI (dots per inch)
Resolution that varies across media. For print, image files are optimized at 300 DPI. For the Web (GIF and JPG file formats), files are optimized at 72 DPI, the number of pixels across one inch of most monitors.
A black and white photograph that has been printed as a two-color halftone.
electrostatic printing
A process that uses static electricity to transfer the image from the plate to the substrate. Xerography and laser printing are examples.
elements of design
Architecture, typography, color and texture are the elements a graphic designer manipulates to achieve the desired result.
The use of color, size or space to attract the eye to one element of the design.
EPS (Encapsulated Postscript)
A universal computer file format used for vector artwork (line art that is created using mathematical equations). EPS files are scalable and can be made larger or smaller without losing file information.


A completed detail representation of the final product including all colors, images and text with proper margins and folds.

Four processes commonly used in commercial printing: relief, planographic, intaglio and screen.

flexography printing
A form of relief printing that uses rubber plates.
A specific typeface, such as Times Roman or Verdana.
formal balance
The symmetrical placement of elements on the page. Symmetry is the balanced distribution of equivalent forms — photos, type blocks, white space, rules — positioned about an axis right down the middle of the page; one side is the mirror image of the other, at least in shape.
GIF (Graphics Interchange Format)
A universal computer file format used for raster, or bit map, artwork, primarily for the Web.

A halftone image enlarged. An optical screen breaks up the image into tiny dots that simulate gray tones.

Graphic design
A purposeful, systematic and creative pursuit of an end product that communicates effectively. Graphic design as we think of it today implies the ability to reproduce a design by some efficient method.
graphic identity
A set of visual elements that work together systematically to represent an organization in a variety of printed, online or fabricated materials such as brochures, stationery, and signage. Usually includes fonts, color palette, use of imagery, a typographic treatment and a logo.
gravure printing
An intaglio printing process uses an etched cylinder to transfer ink to a substrate.
A network of uniformly placed horizontal and vertical lines for locating points by means of coordinates.Graph paper is a simple grid. It allows us to locate points along the x axis and y axis.
Vertical white space placed that separates elements horizontally across the page. A vertical internal margin.
An image that has been reproduced in one color, using a screen, a fine pattern of printed dots to give the effect of shading.
When the elements work together to achieve a pleasing and flowing design.
hex number
Also known as "hexadecimal." Refers to the base-16 number system, which consists of 16 unique symbols: the numbers 0 to 9 and the letters A to F. Used for specifying colors on the Web.
Hierarchy deals with the importance or significance of a form or space by its size, shape or placement. Before any elements are positioned, the designer must study the content and decide on a hierarchy.The design then serves the hierarchy.


The culture, value, goals and mission that make any person or organization unique and express fundamental characteristics and personality. Graphic identity uses the elements of design to express those qualities.

The Cadillac logo. What culture or values does it suggest to you?

The logotype created for IBM in 1972 by designer Paul Rand. The horizontal stripes suggest speed and dynamism, according to the company Web site.

informal balance
Asymmetrical distribution of elements on a page along an axis that is off-center. Informal balance has a more contemporary look that formal balance, but it is still balanced.
JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group)
A compression technique for color images that can reduce files sizes to about 5 percent of their normal size. Some detail is lost in the compression.
A horizontal format on a computer screen, page or printed product in which the width is greater than the height.
A form of relief printing in which ink is applied to the raised surface of the type, then the type and paper are pressed together, leaving the image on the paper. Watch this video about one shop still using traditional letterpress methods.
Part of a graphic identity system, a logo is a symbol that embodies elements of an organization such as values, goals, mission, and culture.
A word mark made up of a specific or stylized typeface. Sometimes used as a logo.
The white space around the edges of the page that define the printable area of a page. Most printers can’t print to the very edge, and presses require a special setup. But margins also define the shape of the text block and aid in navigating the page. Most books allow generous margins. In magazine printing, pictures often extend to the edges of the page in what is known as a bleed.
offset lithography
A form of planographic printing in which the image is transferred from an inked plate to a rubber blanket, and from the rubber blanket to paper.
orthodox grid
A page structure based on uniformly spaced horizontal and vertical lines that produce square modules. The basic unit of measurement is the line height (leading) of the basic body text. Also known as a full Swiss grid.


Pantone Matching System (PMS)
A numbered color system that printers and designers use to indicate color choice. For more information, visit the Pantone website.

Pixels on a computer screen magnified 200x. Each pixel (white square) is composed of three primary pixels of red, green and blue.

PDF (Portable Document Format)
An Adobe Acrobat computer file format, often used for desktop printing or on-screen viewing. Convenient for sharing and sending images or letters via email.
Short for picture element. A single point in a graphic image. Monitors display pictures by dividing the display screen into thousands (or millions) of pixels, arranged in rows and columns. The pixels are so close together that they appear connected.
process colors
Cyan, magenta, yellow, and black inks (abbreviated as CMYK, with black symbolized as K) used in the four-color printing process.
The comparative relationship between parts, things or elements with respect to size, amount, degree. In design, a proportion is most commonly a ratio of the width to the height of a composition. A square has a proportion of 1:1, while a double square has a proportion of 2:1.
Upright or vertical format on a computer screen, page or printed product in which the height is greater than the width.
relief printing
A type of printing in which the type is raised above the surface of the carrier. Letterpress is a form of relief printing.
The repetitive elements of any publication create a rhythm, a feeling of regularity, although as with music, that rhythm doesn’t have to be square. It can make use of asymmetrical balance and a planned variation in placement that feels syncopated.
A sketched layout that closely resembles the final product.
Increasing or decreasing the size of a graphic without altering its proportion.
A fine pattern of printed dots used to achieve varying tints of a color or to create a halftone image. Frequently used for printing photographs or printing shades of color.
screen printing
a process in which ink is transferred through small openings in a screen that is created by a stencil. The ink flows through only the open image areas of the screen onto the paper.
Objects that have dimension (height and weight) created by a basic structure of lines. The three basic shapes are square, circle and triangle.
spot color
The use of one or two colored inks, as opposed to four-color process printing.


A page size of 11 by 17 inches, also referred to B size paper by the American National Standard Institute.
An electronic document with preset margins, typography, and/or artwork, including stationery in MS Word and presentation slides in PowerPoint.

Web-safe colors, the 216 colors common to all browsers and operating systems.

Texture is the feel or look of a surface. Every surface has texture, tactile (3D) or visual (2D).
A series of simple and rapidly drawn designs for a layout.
TIFF (Tagged Image File Format)
A universal computer file format used for raster artwork. A TIFF file is uncompressed.
The balance and interplay of letter forms on the page, a verbal and visual equation that helps the reader understand the form and absorb the substance of the page content.
When all elements in a design are consistent and look as though they belong together.
vector graphic
Images created with software that uses geometrical formulas to represent images. The other method for representing graphical images is through bit maps, in which the image is composed of a pattern of dots or pixels. Vector-oriented images are more flexible than bit maps because they can be resized and stretched without losing file information.
Web-safe colors
the 216 colors that appear consistently, without breaking up and dithering, across web browsers and across computer platforms.
white space
Any area of a document that does not contain images or type. White space does not have to be white if the background color is something other than white. Also called negative apace.
An acronym for “What you see is what you get” referring to the relationship of the printed piece versus the look on the electronic monitor of the computer


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