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Decode Graphic Design Jargon: Part 1

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Read Time: 16 mins

Graphic designers can be a confusing bunch—sometimes it feels as if they’re speaking a completely different language. If you’re at the receiving end of ‘agency speak’, you might feel a little overwhelmed, but often the meaning behind complicated-sounding phrases is easy to deal with once you know how to translate.

This will be an indispensable guide to decoding designer jargon for anyone who’s relatively new to the world of design or just needs a refresh. Read on to learn more about the unique and frequently baffling language of designers...

1. ‘We Need to Flush It Differently’

Nope, this isn’t anything to do with toilets. ‘Flushing’ actually refers to the alignment of text on a layout. 

align text flushingalign text flushingalign text flushing

There are several different ways that text can be aligned on the page, the most common being Align Left (the default option for English-language design software), Align Right, and Align Center. You can also Justify all lines (which stretches lines of text across the whole text frame to create a solid block of text—a common tactic used in newspaper layouts to fit as much text as possible into columns) or Justify with the last line aligned left or right. If you’re working with two-page spreads, such as for a book or magazine layout, you also have the option to align text Towards or Away from the Spine.

In Adobe InDesign, go to Window > Type & Tables > Paragraph to view the full range of alignment options.

Flushing text one way or another has the power to transform the look of your layout. Some of the more unusual alignment options are a great way of breaking the norm, adding more personality to large chunks of text. You can also make a layout appear more balanced by mixing up the alignment of different chunks of text—one corner aligned left, the opposite corner aligned right, for example. This prevents the layout from looking too heavy on one side.

2. ‘Let’s Make It Breathe’

Your design hasn’t stopped breathing, but it might be struggling due to the sheer amount of ‘stuff’ on the page.

This is code for another nugget of designer speak—‘white space’

White space doesn’t even need to be white (yep, confusing)—it just refers to an ‘empty’ area on your layout. This can actually be filled with color or a background image, but it shouldn’t have any distracting elements, like text or strong graphics.  

White space exampleWhite space exampleWhite space example
Minimal Fashion Magazine Template

Ever looked at an amazing magazine spread or a beautiful poster design and wondered just why it looks so good? Part of the reason is probably because the designer has allowed parts of the design to appear effectively blank to the eye. This allows a viewer’s eye to relax as they’re not being overloaded with visual content from all areas of the design, which in turn allows them to concentrate on the attractiveness of the busier elements. 

Though it’s not the most obvious element in a professional designer’s arsenal, white space is one of the most effective techniques for making layouts appear instantly and sometimes imperceptibly more attractive.

So make sure to give your designs a well-deserved chill pill and allow them some breathing space.

Want to train yourself to bring in more white space to your designs? Check out this simple tutorial on how to declutter a flyer design:

3. ‘Make It Look More Flat’

Once upon a time, all anybody wanted was to make two-dimensional print designs look as if they were anything but. Instead, 3D, larger-than-life design effects were the order of the day. 

But that was a decade ago, and now the big buzzword in graphics is ‘flat’ design. This is related to the surge in popularity for vintage design styles, which use collage-like graphics and type to imitate lithographic printing styles. Digital design has taken flat design to new places too—flat-style icons, buttons and illustrations give websites and apps a minimal, simple look that makes them super-intuitive to use.

How can you achieve the desirable flat look in your own designs? Steer clear of gradients, shadows, metallic textures and anything else that makes a design feel too ‘real-life’. 

Flat Design ExampleFlat Design ExampleFlat Design Example
Flat Design Business Card Template

Consider replacing photos with illustrations, and keep your graphics simple, minimal and even a little childlike. Look to 1950s and 1960s print design for ultimate flat design inspiration.

Making a few small swaps in your designs will help you achieve the flat look in an instant—replace metallic or high-shine textures with papery or chalky texture instead; favor neutral, matte color tones over garish brights; choose embossing effects over drop shadows to imitate an on-trend letterpress look.

4. ‘Bring in an Infographic’

If you don’t yet know what an ‘infographic’ is, don’t despair. It may be becoming a more widely used term, but it’s still a highly specific branch of graphic design.

The now hugely popular graphic style, meaning ‘information graphic’, is a more visual way of presenting data, such as statistics, survey results or scientific findings. A step up from your average chart or graph, an infographic might use illustrations, maps, typography or even interactive elements to present data in a creative way. Infographics tend to bridge the gap between graphic design and illustration, bringing together techniques and content from each field. 

Infographic templateInfographic templateInfographic template

If you’d rather not spend days slaving over custom-drawn illustrations, you’re in luck—an increasing amount of stock content is geared towards the infographics market, meaning you can source ready-made icons and illustrations tailored for data-led designs. Check out the huge selection of infographic vector elements over on Envato Market.

You can find out how you can create your own infographic elements directly into Adobe InDesign with this tutorial:

5. ‘What’s the DPI/PPI of This?’

These might sound terrifying, but both of these shortened terms are only referring to the resolution of your raster (not vector, see note below*) designs. You want to aim for high resolution in your print designs, to ensure that the final result doesn’t appear blurry or pixelated.

DPI is ‘Dots per Inch’ and this is important to know about for print design particularly. A printer will generate the printed design via a series of dots. If there are fewer dots per inch (a low DPI), the result will be more pixelated. More dots per inch (a high DPI) creates a denser, more high-quality result. The standard minimum DPI for high-quality print design is 300 DPI. 

PPI is very similar, but refers to ‘Pixels per Inch’. You’ll notice that Adobe Photoshop works in PPI—if you make a raster image larger in Photoshop, you will automatically reduce the PPI, and thereby reduce the quality of the image and increase the visibility of pixelation.

When a designer says they want to know the DPI or PPI of an image, they are probably hinting that the image is currently at too low a resolution to be printed at a high standard of quality. Keeping the DPI above 300 and ensuring that you are aware of the final printed dimensions of the item will help you to keep tabs on the resolution and general quality of the graphics in your design.

* DPI and PPI only apply to raster images, which are made up of a series of colored dots. When you rescale a raster image, the colored dots can appear larger and more distant from one another, creating the dreaded pixelated effect. If you're working with large-scale designs, or simply want to make sure your graphics are optimum quality, you're better off working with vector graphics, which are scaleable.

Swot up on the technical issues you’ll need to consider when prepping for print with this useful guide:

6. ‘We Need to Change the Font/Typeface/Typography’

Here I present to you one of the biggest differences between what a client will say and what a designer will say.

‘Font’ is the digital version of a typeface—you download and install fonts, and apply them on your documents on-screen. When you come to print your artwork, the ‘font’ becomes a ‘typeface’—the printed incarnation of the font file. You’ll hear clients mostly asking for a ‘font’ to be changed, but most designers will probably say ‘typeface’. 

Example TypefaceExample TypefaceExample Typeface
Pier Sans Typeface

Even though they are different things, both the client and designer are hinting at the same thing. They both want the look of the type style to be different. Typefaces do have distinct personalities and characteristics—if the designer doesn’t think a serif is working, it may be because it looks too traditional or formal. Switching to a sans serif might make a design look more modern and minimal.

If you’re presented with a typeface challenge, try to extract what exactly it is that isn’t working—what characteristics does the current typeface bring to the design? Can you adjust the whole mood of the design by switching to something slightly different?

‘Typography’ might well include typeface, but it’s also much broader than that. Typography refers to the way that the type is arranged and formatted on the page. 

If the designer’s issue is with the typography on the design, this might refer to a whole range of things that come together to render how the text is arranged, such as leading (the space between lines of text), case (upper- or lower-case characters), tracking (the space between all characters) or drop caps (whereby the first or first few characters of a paragraph are enlarged). 

As typography is so broad, you’ll need to pinpoint what it is exactly about the arrangement of text that isn’t quite right—does it look too crowded, too spaced out, too large, too small? 

In every designer’s arsenal is a great range of classic and modern type styles, ready to be used on all kinds of layouts. Build up your collection with the fantastic range of fonts over on Envato Market.

Another example typefaceAnother example typefaceAnother example typeface
Ed's Market Script Typeface

Don't be in the dark about typography with this definitive A to Z guide to all things type:

7. ‘Let’s Create an Identity’

There’s no need for you to hastily forge a passport, Jason Bourne-style, as an ‘identity’ in design-speak only refers to a brand identity.

Example Brand IdentityExample Brand IdentityExample Brand Identity
Image: ©Barbican Centre/North

Most larger businesses have a brand identity, as do many individual products, but what does this mean? A brand identity is made up of visual markers which are unique to that business or product, such as a logo, mascot, or slogan. More developed identities might have their own color palette, typefaces (see 6, above), and graphic elements such as illustrations and/or photography which have been tailored to the brand.

When a designer wants to create an identity, they might mean a full-blown identity with all the bells and whistles, or they might mean just a logo design—the latter is quite common in agency pitch scenarios when time is tight. Make sure you know what’s needed before you create a whole complex identity from scratch.

If a client or designer wants to see a ‘range of identities’, this might mean they want to see a few, maybe three to five, logo designs that may or may not include the name of the company set in a suggested ‘brand typeface’ too. The strongest logo design(s) may then be refined, and the colors and style extended outwards to create the other parts of the identity.

Creating strong brand identities is no mean feat, but you can get started on a sure footing by following along the process for creating our very own Envato Tuts+ ‘Team Awesome’ brand:

8. ‘Can We Change the Grid?’

Be surprised if a client picks up on this (respect to them if they do!), but a designer won’t shy away from telling you if the grid on your layout looks a bit off.

Grids are the unsung heroes of successfully designed layouts; they are the basic building block for any design. Any layout can be divided into a series of square or rectangular sections to create a grid, making up the invisible columns and rows that section out elements on your design. You can insert a grid in most design programs (for example, in Adobe InDesign, go to View > Grids & Guides > Show Document Grid), which will sit behind the content on your document or artboard. 

InDesign grid viewInDesign grid viewInDesign grid view
Example Document Grid ViewExample Document Grid ViewExample Document Grid View

Resizing sections of your grid to create smaller and larger areas will help to create balance on your layout and prevent it from looking too modular. For example, placing one image across four square sections of your grid and another photo in just one square section will look better than creating two equally-sized images.

Pick up tips for creating grids in artwork, as well as two other top tips to make your designs look instantly more professional, with this quick tutorial:

9. ‘Send Over the Native Files’

This is enough to strike fear into any young designer’s heart. You’ve spent hours or even days poring over designs on your computer, only to get to the end of the process and hear that you need to find something called a ‘native file’. What on earth is it?

A native file is an industry term for the original digital copy of your artwork. So, for example, if you’ve been working on a vector illustration in Adobe Illustrator or Inkscape, you might have provided a JPEG or PNG version of the final illustration. If the client or agency also wants the ‘native file’, they want the original artwork file, perhaps in AI, or more commonly, EPS format. This means that the file can be edited by the client or other designers, allowing them to switch up colors or adjust graphics, for example.

If you’ve been working on an Adobe InDesign file, perhaps for a publishing project like a book or brochure, sending a native file is a slightly more complicated process. In this case, you need to first ‘package’ the file (File > Package)—this will gather up all the font files used in the document and all the images linked to the document, and place them into a new folder, along with a copy of the InDesign file. You also need to remember to provide an IDML copy of the InDesign file (File > Save As > choose InDesign CS4 or later [IDML]) if the intended recipient has a different version of the InDesign software to yours (for example, if you are using CC and they are using CS6).

InDesign LogoInDesign LogoInDesign Logo

Depending on who you are sending your artwork files too, you should exercise caution. If an agency has commissioned you to help with a pitch or other project, they may ask you to sign a document that assumes they will then own the copyright to your design. In this case, it is acceptable and common practice to provide the client with your native artwork files.

If you are acting not as a freelance services provider, but instead as an artist, it is in your interest to retain the exclusive copyright to your designs. You should be aware of this when sending artwork files to galleries or shops—often a high-resolution JPEG version of your design will be fit for purpose, and will help prevent others from editing or copying your work.

10. ‘Let’s Make It More Commercial’

Whether you’re working for an agency or in-house, there’s one word you’ve got to get used to—‘commercial’.

‘Commercial’ is one of those words that has the power to suck the life force from a passionate designer or artist. This is because ‘commercial’ has the opposite meaning to ‘artistic’ or ‘creative’. Commercial design has one aim, and one aim only—to sell. Ads, magazine covers or flyers with a more commercial slant are more likely to convert to sales than more creative, ‘out there’ designs.

Example Sales FlierExample Sales FlierExample Sales Flier
Sales Flyer Template

For designers, this can sometimes be frustrating, as commercial design is not the most creative of outlets. If someone wants something to look more commercial, they want it to appear more palatable, more culturally on-trend and less offensive or challenging to the public eye. 

If your client or colleague wants your design to appear more commercial, you might have to be prepared to tone it down a bit, or modify elements of your design to make it appear more fashionable or appealing to a mass market. 

But do not despair—commerciality and creativity can be balanced, and this can lead not only to favorable sales, but also to iconic, creative designs. 

Book covers are a perfect example of this compromise. Particularly for vintage editions or literary novels, book designers are often encouraged to be as creative as possible. The publisher might then suggest ways of commercializing the design further, adjusting color or typography, for example, to help the cover appeal to different demographics and markets.

Discover how to tailor a classic book cover for a modern market with this tutorial:

Congratulations! You Can Now Speak ‘Designer’

Designer jargon might sound intimidating, but with some sharpened translation skills you’ll have no problem decoding the real meaning. So when your client or agency boss asks for one of the following when you next present your designs, you’ll know exactly what they’re talking about:

  1. ‘We need to flush it differently’—translation: ‘We need to change the alignment of the text.’
  2. Let’s make it breathe’—translation: ‘Make it less crowded, with more white space.’
  3. ‘Make it look more flat’—translation: ‘Strip out any 3D elements, like gradients or drop shadows.’
  4. ‘Bring in an infographic’—translation: ‘Bring in some graphics, icons or charts to visually express the data or information.’
  5. ‘What’s the DPI/PPI of this?’—translation: ‘You need to improve the resolution of your images.’
  6. ‘We need to change the font/typeface/typography’—translation: ‘Make the type style (of the text) look different.’
  7. ‘Let’s create an identity’—translation: ‘Let’s create a brand identity for the company/business/client, probably starting with some ideas for a logo.’
  8. ‘Can we change the grid?’—translation: ‘The overall layout and arrangement of elements on the page needs some improvement.’
  9. ‘Send me over the native files’—translation: ‘Send me your original digital artwork files, either in editable AI, EPS or PSD format, or as packaged InDesign files.’
  10. ‘Let’s make it more commercial’—translation: ‘Tone down the arty stuff and make it appear more on-trend, with mass market appeal.’

Do you have any other nuggets of designer jargon you’d like to share the translation for? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below!

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