6 key terms every graphic designer should know

Whether you're a newbie, a student or just in need of a refresher, read this guide.

Graphic design, like any profession, is littered with jargon and phrases you may not be familiar with. Here are just some of the key terms you should know, and a brief explanation in words you can understand – plus where to go to learn more.

01. Raster images and vector images

Vector-based images (like this one) are made of points; raster images are made of pixels

Raster images (sometimes referred to as bitmap images) are made up of thousands of pixels that determine colour and form. Photos are raster images. Photoshop is the most common raster editor, enabling you to manipulate the colour and other properties of the pixels. 

Because raster images are made up of a finite amount of pixels, resizing can be tricky. If you give a raster image larger dimensions in Photoshop, the software has to make up data in order to add the size. This results in a loss of quality.

Vector images

Vector-based images (such as those created in Adobe Illustrator) are made up of points, each of which has a defined X and Y coordinate. These points join paths to form shapes, and inside these shapes you can add colour fills. Because everything you generate is based around this, vectors can be blown up to any size without any loss of quality.

In recent times, Illustrator has progressed so much that vector graphics have become incredibly complex. You can now add gradients, complex shapes and more to create highly detailed, scalable vector images. Because vectors can be resized, they are often used for  logos and other graphics that need to be used across many different outputs (from leaflet to billboard, for instance). 

For more details see our articles Get started with vector illustration and How to create vector art: top tutorials.

02. CMYK and RGB

CMYK stands for cyan, magenta, yellow and key

CMYK is the standard colour mode for sending documents – be they magazines, newspapers, flyers, brochures, annual reports and so on – to the printers. It stands for cyan, magenta, yellow and key. 

'Key' in this instance means black. It's referred to as key because in four-colour printing, cyan, magenta and yellow printing plates are carefully keyed, or aligned, with the key of the black key plate. 

When you send a job to the press, cyan, magenta, yellow and black plates are made (on a traditional press, anyhow) and then aligned to print on paper. You can add Pantone, or fifth colours, as separate plates.

Colour options

When working in Photoshop or Illustrator, you have the option to set your document's colour mode to CMYK or RGB (red, green, blue; for screen output). There are some other colour modes, but CMYK and RGB are the two you really need to know about. For more on colour systems, read this article.

Because CMYK has a more limited colour gamut than RGB (which is essentially what the eye sees and how screens output) you can experience a loss of colour when converting from RGB to CMYK in these applications.

03. DPI and PPI

The more dots per inch, the better quality the printed image will be

Resolution is another key term that is often confused. There are two main acronyms used when dealing with resolution: DPI and PPI.

The former is only of concern when you're creating work for printed output. It stands for 'dots per Inch' and refers to the number of dots per inch on a printed page. Generally, the more dots per inch, the better quality the image. 300DPI is the standard for printing images.

PPI stands for 'pixels per inch' and, as you'd expect, refers to the number of pixels per inch in your image. If you make an image larger Photoshop you will increase the number of pixels per inch (with Photoshop making up the data) and you will lose quality. There's an excellent explanation here.

Bear in mind that resolution only applies to raster graphics, because vectors do not work in pixels. And for a comprehensive guide to printing terms, this app will serve you well.

04. Typography

Can you name all these typographical elements?

Put simply, typography is the art of arranging type. It's one of the fundamentals of graphic design and one every designer should read into in great detail.

The difference between good type and great type is often what sets brilliant designers apart. And being able to spot a kerning (the space between two characters) error from a distance is somewhat satisfying! A great place to start your typography education is our comprehensive article What is Typography?.

05. Grids

Setting up a grid enables you to get your composition right

The best way to describe a grid in graphic design is a series of intersecting vertical and horizontal lines used to organise and structure content. Whether you're working in InDesign, Photoshop or Illustrator, setting up a grid enables you to get your composition right and balance your type and imagery.

Grids typically include a large header across the top of the design, with equally sized columns beneath, but there's no real limit on what can be created. The Grid System provides an excellent resource including lots of further reading and templates. Grid Systems in Graphic Design by Josef Muller-Brockmann is also an essential read.

06. Logo design vs branding

Logos are powerful graphic tools, but they're one just part of the branding process

Logos are powerful things; a great logo works as an instant reminder of a company or product, and for designers they represent the challenge of distilling a brand's essence into a single graphic. The best logos can live for a long time, and a new logo design can be a jarring event for customers, as the familiar is replaced by something new.

What logo design isn't, though, is branding. While the logo is usually the stand-out part of a brand, there's much more to branding than a logo. A good brand identity is carefully built out of a number of elements, and the logo will reflect these elements and work within the brand system.

Taken by itself, Wolff Olins' 2012 Olympics logo attracted ridicule, but it was built to work within a much larger branding system

Designing a great logo is by no means easy; follow our definitive guide to logo design to ensure that you get it right. But creating or simply refreshing a brand can be a massive undertaking, involving a deep understanding of the brand's personality, how it's perceived, its history and function and much more. Get a taste of what you’re in for with these 10 steps to designing a brand identity.

This is an updated version of an article previously published on Creative Bloq.

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