Your Guide to Understanding Graphic Design Basics


Like any industry, graphic design has its own language; using words familiar only to those in the trenches. The joy of outsourcing graphic design projects is the benefit of working with experts. Just as you might rely on others to fix your car, you can hire professionals to create or promote your brand.

But just as it might be helpful to know and understand the parts in your car, it can also be helpful to understand the terminology used in graphic design. As a business professional, we don’t expect you to fully understand the ins-and-outs and complications of design, but we do hope this gives you some insight and will help you to communicate more effectively with your designer.

Understanding Graphic Design

Art Types

Vector Art: This is an image of original art that the designer can scale to as large as needed without the image degrading, or looking “fuzzy.” In the image above, the left side is vector art.

Raster Art: This is usually a photo or graphic that cannot be enlarged without losing image quality. If raster art is needed for print, it is recommended that the art be at least 300 DPI. In the image above, the right side is raster art.

DPI: “Dots per inch” refers to the resolution of the image. More specifically, it refers to the number of dots of ink used per inch to create an image. A higher DPI enables the designer to enlarge the image or photo without it looking “pixelated.”

Text Terms

San Serif Font: These are a family of font types in which the letters do not have tiny tails or “serifs” at the end. Sans serif font is most widely used in headlines and for digital presentation, while serif fonts are used in body copy because it “guides the eye” through the text.

Kerning: This term refers to the amount of space in between letters of a word. Designers will manipulate the kerning to make text fit within the desired parameters of an image. You can adjust the kerning within MS Word under the advanced tab of the font settings.

Leading: This term describes the amount of space above and below lines of type. In MS word, we can manipulate this space with paragraph and line settings, but graphic designers have more detailed options, such as overlapping.

Design File Types

AI: This file was designed using Adobe Illustrator, and it is usually intended for the creation and manipulation of vector artwork. When an AI file is sent to the printer, it is “packaged” with the various fonts, images and text layers for the printer to reassemble the image from its original layers.

PSD: This file was designed in Adobe Photoshop. Ordinarily this file type is used for digital painting and photo manipulation and the output is predominantly raster. Since all the elements are saved together, it results in a very large file size that is not ideal for electronic transmission.

Adobe InDesign: This file is primarily used by designers for publication layout, such as a newsletter or event program.

PDF: Consider this file type as a layered “picture” of the final three file types above. A “high res” or “print quality” PDF can be sent to the printer, but the printer has very little editing ability. Designers call this a “flat” image, although it is still presented in layers, the amount of manipulation of the layered elements is somewhat limited. Each PDF file encapsulates a complete description of a fixed-layout flat document, including the text, fonts, graphics, and other information needed to display it.

Image File Types

PNG: Images saved as “image.png” are typically used in web design or digital artwork and typically feature a clipped element sans background.

TIF: Images saved as “image.tif” are created using CMYK color model for printing on a four-color press and are significantly larger than their JPG counterparts.

JPG: Images saved as “image.jpg” are predominantly created using the RGB color model for a digital screen or digital printer. If printed on a four-color press, the colors will appear different from a CMYK version of the same print file.

EPS: “Image.eps” is a universal file type that gives designers the ability to open and edit the file in virtually any design program.

GIF: Images saved as “image.gif” can 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.

**Occasionally these file types are also referred to as “native files,” because they are the original files created in the design program.

Color Palate Types

RGB: “Red, green and blue” are the base colors used in all digital or television screens. The combination of the lights reflecting each of these creates the various colors you see on a monitor.

CMYK: “Cyan, magenta, yellow and key (black)” are the colors used in printing, and they offer the highest number of combinations and variety of colors. “Key” or the color black refers to the outline or contrast color.

PMS: “Pantone matching system” is a conversion color code that allows an RGB file to be printed close to its CMYK true colors.

Miscellaneous Terms

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.

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

Hard Copy: The permanent reproduction of the output of a computer or printer.

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

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

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

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