How to speak the language of design

By Anthony Horne

Posted on 16th January 2019

Reading time: 7 minutes

Designers… beings seemingly from another galaxy, all speaking a variant of an alien language that was created to confuse non-designers. From digital, to graphic, to web designers, no matter the type of designer you’re dealing with, often, it feels like you need to be a linguistics professor just to communicate with them.

This doesn’t have to be the case though, and in this article, I will go through some of the most common terms used by designers and try to simply explain what they are saying.

The acronyms

CMYK – a 4-colour process made up of cyan, magenta, yellow and black, that is perfect for printing.


RGB – a digital colour format that stands for red, green and blue, that works perfectly for any type of digital screen.

DPI / PPI – terms used to describe the resolution or clarity of an image. DPI (dots per inch) is a printing term used to describe the number of physical dots of ink that make up a printed document or image. PPI (pixels per inch) is a digital term used to describe the number of square pixels that show up in an inch of digital screen.


UI – user interface refers to the actual appearance of a designed website, app, program, etc. In other words, what you see on the screen.


UX – user experience refers to the flow and behaviour of a designed website, app, program, etc. In other words, what happens when the user presses, touches, clicks, slides, types on, or moves certain things on the interface.


CTA – call to action is a term used to describe specific text, an image, banner or button that uses action-orientated language to persuade a user to take an expected or predetermined action (e.g. Download, Add to cart, Register, Contact us, etc.).


CMS – a Content Management System is a software system used to edit the content of a website or app. It allows individuals with little or no technical knowledge of code to easily change images or text on a website or app.


HTML – Hypertext Markup Language refers to the markup language that is used to construct web pages and display content like text, images, video and links on the web.


SEO – Search Engine Optimisation refers to the method or process of increasing a website’s likelihood of being served up to web browsers that query relevant keywords.


CSS – Cascading Style Sheets refers to the code that developers use to designate how a web page should be presented to visitors. It formats the look and feel of a website, and sets the styles for fonts, colours, images, menus, etc

The file types

JPEG – Joint Photographic Experts Group is a common file type for images and is best used for images that have a gradient.


GIF – Graphics Interchange Format is a static or animated image type most often used in digital and web design.


TIFF / TIF – Tagged Image File Format is a computer file format for storing raster graphics images, most commonly used among graphic artists, the publishing industry, and photographers.


PNG – Portable Network Graphics is a raster-graphics file-format that supports lossless data compression, transparency, and is ideal for the web.


PDF – Portable Document Format is a file format that has captured all the elements of a printed document as an electronic image that you can view, navigate, print, or forward to someone else. PDF files are created using Adobe Acrobat, Acrobat Capture, or other Adobe products.


PSD – Photoshop Document refers to the default format that Adobe Photoshop uses for saving data.


AI – the file extension that refers to single-page vector-based drawing or artwork created in Adobe Illustrator that can also be presented in EPS or PDF formats.


INDD – InDesign Document refers to a page layout file designed in Adobe InDesign, that can also be opened using Adobe InCopy. INDD files contain formatting, content, styles, and linked files, and are most commonly used for Desktop Publishing to create books, magazines, newspapers, flyers, etc.


EPS – Encapsulated PostScript refers to files that contain vector-based graphics or images, that can be opened using programs like Adobe Illustrator or CorelDraw.

The words

Typography – the visual component of a written word. In other words, the art of arranging letters or characters in an attractive way.


Font – a collection of characters or letters, punctuation marks, numbers, and symbols.


Typeface – a family of fonts.


Kerning – the adjustment of the space between letters in a word.


Tracking – the alteration of the space for entire words or blocks of text.


Leading – the vertical space between two lines of text, also referred to as line-height.


Serif – the small flourishes at the end of the strokes in some letters (e.g. Times New Roman).


Sans Serif – sans means “without”, therefore a sans serif font has no serifs, meaning no small flourishes (e.g. Arial).


Script – a typeface that uses flowing, cursive strokes.

The look of things

Bleed – allowing the design to go beyond the edge of the page so that there is no margin. Most often used in Desktop Publishing and Printing.


Grid – lines used in print and digital to help align elements.


White Space – the area left empty to bring focus to other elements on the page or screen.


Gradient – the fading of one colour into another, or from opaque to transparent.


Padding –tThe space between a border and the element inside of it.


Margin – the space between a border and the element outside of it.


Contrast – when one element is completely different to another. Contrast can be created using colour, shapes, texture, size or typefaces.


Scale – the size of one object in relation to another element.

The web

Below the fold – the area of a web page or application that the user must scroll down to see.


Responsive – a website design that adjusts in size according to the screen it is being viewed on.


Wireframe – the basic layout or line drawing of a website that shows the structure of content on the web page without using any design elements, text or images.


Hex / Web Colours – colours used on the web, represented by 6-digit hexadecimal codes.


Web Safe Fonts – fonts that are pre-installed by many operating systems and can often be used on the web.


Domain – the name of the website that people type into a browser to visit it.


Favicon – a small icon image, often a company logo, that displays on the title bar or tab of a browser.


Hosting – the web servers where your website files are housed, served, and maintained.


Plugin – software apps that “plug in” to a Content Management System to allow a developer or designer to add new features and extend the functionality.

The branding

Brand Identity – the visual representation that outlines a brand in its entirety. This includes the values, mission and background of the company, as well as the logo, business cards, memos, packaging design, fonts, colours, etc.


Logotype – the name of a company designed in a visually unique way.


LogoMark – a symbol or mark used to represent a company without using the name of the company (e.g. the “tick” of Nike).


Collateral – the physical, visible objects that have been created to represent a brand. Collateral can include things like brochures, flyers, social media ads and even digital or print signage.


While a designer may go through this and think it’s child’s play, those out there not versed in the alien tongue of design can find the most basic of design terms confusing. This confusion can lead to frustration and in the end, an unhappy work environment or client relationship. So, the next time your designer starts blabbering off in some variant of Dothraki Design, just take a look at this list and hopefully you will have some clue as to what they are going on about!

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