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Decode Graphic Design Jargon: Part 2

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Welcome back to the series that dissects the confusing terminology used by professional designers. 

Ever emerged from a design meeting feeling more baffled than motivated? You’re not alone—graphic designers have a distinct and diverse set of words to describe all sorts of technical and design processes, and these can often sound like a completely foreign language.

But help is at hand! Read on to find out how to translate some of the more confusing bits of language used by pro designers.

In this, the second installment of Decode Graphic Design Jargon (see here for Part 1), we delve a little deeper into some of the more technical terms used by designers to communicate specific instructions for editing typography, layout, color, and style. Consider your design language class in session.

First up, a couple of confusing nuggets of typography-related jargon:

1. ‘Get Rid of That Orphan/Widow’

This may sound a bit uncharitable, but it’s nothing personal. Orphans and widows are minor typographic errors which make text appear just that little bit less tidy. Keep an eye out for them, and you’ll be cherished by every designer in the office.

A widow is a single word that sits at the end of a paragraph on its own line. Considered undesirable by typographers, a widow breaks the square portion of text and leaves too much white space next to it—this stalls the reader’s eye, and makes the whole paragraph look a little unbalanced. 

An orphan is similar—a single word, or even a short line—except that it appears at the top of a column of text, or at the top of a page. These tend to be more common when you’re typesetting longer chunks of text, such as in a book or magazine.

The solution for widows and orphans? Be eagle-eyed, spot them, and get rid of them! It may be as simple as slightly reducing the Tracking (the space between all letters) either on the last line of the paragraph, or across the whole paragraph if that looks better. Adding Hyphenation can also help significantly (a common trick in newspaper and magazine design), as can subtly adjusting the width of the text frame.

widow widow widow

A lovely typeface always helps your paragraphs to look that bit more polished and professional. Track down the perfect font on Envato Market.

2. ‘That Paragraph Looks Ragged’

‘Ragged’ looks just like it sounds—a bit untidy, scruffy, and dishevelled. While some paragraphs look neat and boxy, a ragged paragraph will have lines that end at different vertical points, creating a step-like effect that looks uneven and asymmetrical. 

There’s an art to banishing overly ragged paragraphs. One solution is to Justify your paragraph, pulling all the lines of text across the whole text frame to fill the space. In some contexts this can look nice, but if your column is particularly narrow, long words will be stretched to fill a single line which, outside of newspaper typesetting, can look a bit odd.

The other, more moderate, solution is to keep your text flushed to either the right or left margin, but aim to reduce the raggedness of the paragraph by limiting the extent to which the lines go in and out. You can do this by inserting manual line breaks, or by reducing the Tracking of all, or individual items, of text.

Comparison of ragged and justified paragraphsComparison of ragged and justified paragraphsComparison of ragged and justified paragraphs

This tutorial will take you through the process of remedying ragged text in Adobe InDesign, step by step:

You can find out the meanings behind a huge range of typography terms with this handy A to Z guide. Make sure to swot up before your next meeting, and prepare to impress!

Design jargon isn’t only restricted to typography—you’ll hear some confusing terms to do with color too...

3. ‘I Want It to Be Monochrome’

You may have spent years believing ‘monochrome’ refers to black-and-white compositions and photos, but in the graphic design world the term isn’t limited to black and white shades alone.

Monochrome can refer to any single color, as long as that color is used in isolation, alongside tints of that color. So a monochrome poster design might only feature one shade of blue, and the designer might use white as well as lighter or darker tints of the blue swatch to contrast against it. 

blue shadesblue shadesblue shades

This can be a really effective technique when creating a series of designs, such as a series of posters or book covers—one color can be featured on each design. 

Looking for more practical knowhow on applying monochrome palettes to your designs? In this course, Kirk Nelson shows you how to work with color in Adobe Photoshop:

4. ‘Make the Colors Complementary/Analogous’

Oh dear, these are two big words which have the power to confuse even the most seasoned of graphic designers. 

A complementary color scheme is based on two colors which sit opposite to each other on a color wheel—these will be different from each other, but sit very well together when paired up. Dig out some color swatch books to track down complementary pairings to suit the mood and theme of your design.


An analogous color scheme uses a group of three colors which sit next to each other on a color wheel. 


They look good together because they are related to each other—think yellow, orange and red. Which leads us on nicely to the next piece of jargon to be decoded...

5. ‘Make It Warmer/Cooler’

Unless you’re serving up a cup of tea to your boss, a reference to warmer/cooler when looking at a design is all to do with color. 

You probably already have a sense of whether a design feels warmer or cooler just by looking at it. Warm color schemes feel cosier and more earthy—they might be suited to layouts or brands wanting to make people feel at ease and comforted. Reds, oranges and yellows all fall into the warm color group. 

warm colorswarm colorswarm colors

Cool color schemes feel more restrained and soothing. Adding more blue, purple and green tones to your designs have an instantly calming effect on the viewer. They make a great partner to minimal designs.

Cool colorsCool colorsCool colors

Color occupies a broad niche in the field of graphic design, and these terms only begin to scratch the surface. You can find out more about the basics of color theory with Adi Purdila's quick introduction to tints, tones and shades:

Or delve into color theory a little deeper with James Thomas's article about understanding color management:

Perhaps you’ve been tasked with creating a brand identity, which we looked at in the first installment of Decode Designer Jargon. You’ll be disturbed/outraged to find that ‘identity’ is not the only jargon you’ll have to become familiar with when faced with a branding project...

6. ‘Design Me a Brandmark’

Argh! Logos, brand identities... and now a ‘brandmark’?

A brandmark (sometimes written as 'brand mark') is, in many ways, the holy grail for brand designers. Brandmarks are symbolic logos, which provide visual, rather than text-based, recognition for a brand or product. The Apple logo is a famous example, along with the Nike swoosh, and Shell’s instantly recognizable yellow and red seashell.

brandmarks shell applebrandmarks shell applebrandmarks shell apple

Many smaller companies will shy away from brandmarks, and quite right too—they only work when the brand is well known enough to be recognizable from a visual symbol alone without the prompt of a text name. So if your client’s opening a local coffee shop, a brandmark might not be the best choice (and the client will need telling so!), but a big client with big ambitions might well benefit from a cleverly designed symbolic logo.

7. ‘Actually, Nope, I Want a Logotype’

OK, breathe, we can decode this, no problem.

A logotype is where the logo is designed around a typed version of the brand’s name. More than just a typed name set beneath an image, logotypes tend to integrate the core design elements into the typography itself. Google, Cadbury, NASA, Skype and Nestlé are examples of brands which have opted for logotypes.

google logogoogle logogoogle logo

You’ll notice that the majority of food brands use a logotype rather than a brandmark. This is because recognition of the brand’s name is especially important in a competitive supermarket setting. 

cadbury logocadbury logocadbury logo

Aspirational lifestyle products, like those sold by Apple, may find that a brandmark actually increases the desire for the product and makes the brand appear more exclusive, stylish or special.

Learn more about building logos and brand identities from scratch with our Designing and Building a Brand course, or see how we created a complete brand identity for our very own resident Design & Illustration team:

Graphic designers also have specific terms for talking about designing layouts. You might well come across some of these words and phrases in meetings at agencies or with clients, when designers want to discuss how elements can be better arranged on a page...

8. ‘Let’s Change the Hierarchy’

When a designer starts talking about hierarchy, they are actually referring to a range of different options and techniques which will allow the content on the page to be displayed more clearly. If you’re designing a layout with multiple elements, such as images, text and graphics, imposing a visual hierarchy on these (e.g. Element A to be larger than Element B, Element A to sit above Element B, etc.) will give your page structure, allowing the content to be digested easily by the viewer or reader.

There is a huge range of options for creating a visual hierarchy on a layout. If a designer or client wants to change the existing hierarchy, they’re hinting that they want you to adopt a different way of arranging the elements on the page. Here are just a few principles for creating a visual hierarchy on your page:

  • Start from the basics—create a grid (see Part 1 for a translation of ‘grid’), and ensure that content reads left to right (for most languages), and that content to be read first is at the top of the page, working downwards. This layout style is known as an ‘F-pattern’ or ‘E-pattern’ due to the rough shape it makes on the page.
  • Opt for a 'Z-pattern'—this prompts you to place the first item of content to be read or looked at on the top-left corner of the ‘Z’, working across the ‘Z’ until the final bottom-right point, which is the best place for a call-to-action or concluding text/image.
  • Use design techniques to draw attention to elements you want towards the top of the hierarchy—applying bold typography, playing with the size of elements, or pulling out certain elements in an attention-grabbing color will help to create a strong sense of hierarchy on your layout.
bright color resumebright color resumebright color resume
Colorful Resume Tutorial
  • Be a bit ‘out there’ and break the grid—grids structure layouts along linear principles, boxing elements and allowing text to sit along straight lines. If you break the grid, bringing in an element at a jaunty or curved angle, this will contrast against the grid-aligned elements and allow that element to take center stage.

9. ‘You Need to Use the Rule of Thirds’

Eek, that sounds scary. But don’t panic—the Rule of Thirds is one of the simplest and most effective design principles to be aware of. 

The Rule of Thirds is based on the idea of dividing a layout into nine equal portions by creating a grid across the page of two lines across and two lines down. 

rule of thirds gridrule of thirds gridrule of thirds grid

Placing elements across the intersections of this grid has the magical power of making layouts look instantly more attractive. This is because although we find symmetry attractive, we are so used to seeing it that it can go unnoticed by the human eye. The Rule of Thirds encourages gentle asymmetry, which shouts out to the viewer that it’s a little bit unusual, which in turn keeps the viewer engaged. 

The ‘hot spots’ on the Rule of Thirds grid are highlighted below. Placing the part of the content which you want to draw attention to (or which is the busiest) across one of these hot spots will make the layout look just that bit nicer. 

rule of thirdsrule of thirdsrule of thirds
rule of thirdsrule of thirdsrule of thirds

Try it out, and see if you can transform your layouts for the better!

10. ‘OK, Make Me a Dummy’

After you’ve finalized your layouts—at the end of the design process but before going to print—a designer or client may well ask you to put together a ‘dummy’

This is a mock-up of the item you’ve been designing, whether that’s a single-page document like a poster or flyer, or a multi-page or more complex item like a book or packaging design.

packaging dummypackaging dummypackaging dummy
Packaging Design Tutorial

You can create this using your office or home printer and then put the pages together in the right order. The dummy doesn’t need to look polished or pretty, but it does need to show the technical information needed to print and fold the item correctly. Page numbers, indications for folds and cuts, and technical notes will all be helpful.

Once you’ve put together the dummy, the designer may want to check and sign it before agreeing to send it to print*. After this, there might be an optional second pre-print stage, whereby the printer provides you with a proof of the final document. This is a professionally printed version showing the colors and arrangement of the document as it will appear as a finished product. Only after this has been seen and approved by the designer will the printer get the go-ahead to perform the whole print run.

* For more complicated documents, like multi-page booklets, or packaging designs, it’s always a good idea to share your dummy with the printer, so they can see exactly how the final item should be put together.

Need some help with designing packaging? Check out the huge range of packaging templates, from simple labels to more complex boxes, over on Envato Market.

Well Done! You’re Now Fluent in ‘Designer’

There’s no need to feel lost in translation when sitting in your next design meeting. Designer jargon may sound a bit baffling, but often the meanings behind the words are relatively simple to understand. In this article we’ve covered some of the more common pieces of technical jargon that might pop up during the design process. 

For talking about typography:

  • ‘Get rid of that orphan/widow’—translation: ‘Get rid of stray words or phrases at the top or bottom of a column of text’
  • ‘That paragraph looks ragged’—translation: ‘Tidy up the margin alignment of your text by justifying or allowing for a more moderate stepped effect’

For talking about color:

  • ‘I want it to be monochrome’—translation: ‘Use shades of just one color in this design’
  • ‘Make the colors complementary/analogous’—translation: ‘Use a color wheel to pick a color scheme that either provides contrast (from opposite sides of the wheel) or relation to each other (colors sitting side by side on the wheel)’
  • ‘Make it warmer/cooler’—translation: ‘Use either a set of colors associated with the warm end of the color spectrum (reds, oranges, yellows) or the cool end (blues, greens, purples)’

For talking about brand design:

  • ‘Design me a brandmark’—translation: ‘Design a logo using only a visual symbol’
  • ‘Actually, nope, I want a logotype’—translation: ‘Design a logo using a text version of the brand’s name’

For talking about layouts:

  • ‘Let’s change the hierarchy’—translation: ‘Let’s change the arrangement of elements on the page’
  • ‘You need to use the Rule of Thirds’—translation: ‘Use a 9-square grid to arrange elements asymmetrically on the page’
  • ‘OK, make me a dummy’—translation: ‘Put together a mock-up or rough prototype of the final design’

Have you encountered any baffling graphic design jargon recently? Share your stories in the comments below!

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