A Glossary of Basic Graphic Design Terms

Graphic design, also known as communication design, is the art and practice of planning and projecting ideas and experiences with visual and textual content. The form of the communication can be physical or virtual and may include images, words, or graphics. The experience can take place in an instant or over a long period of time.

The work can happen at any scale, from the design of a single postage stamp to a national postal signage system, or from a company’s digital avatar to the sprawling and interlinked digital and physical content of an international newspaper. It can also be for any purpose, whether commercial, educational, cultural, or political.

Although graphic design is a science-oriented field that requires knowledge of research methods, aesthetics are central to its success. Graphic designers often use typography and other means of visual communication to meet users’ specific needs. Graphic designers collaborate with clients and other designers to determine which type of visual language will best suit the client’s objectives. Moreover, the designer must understand how their designs are perceived by users in order to create effective designs.

Now that you’re ready to get started with graphic design for your business, it’s important to have an understanding of the terminology. If you don’t understand what a designer is talking about, it’ll be hard to communicate and get the results you want.

Here are some common phrases and terms to help you get started.


In color theory, achromatic colors are shades of white and black.


The placement of design elements on a page in relation to each other and the margins. Most common alignments include left, right, centered, and justified (text evenly distributed between margins).


A group of three colors closes together on the color wheel, such as red, orange, and yellow or blue, purple, and red. Analogous colors create a monochromatic effect when used together.

Art Direction: 

The arrangement of visual elements within a composition guides the viewer’s eye through the piece.


In graphic design, there are several types of balance. Symmetrical balance is achieved when objects on one side of the composition are mirrored by objects on the other side. Asymmetrical balance is similar to symmetrical balance but with different-sized objects. Radial balance occurs when elements radiate out from a center point.

Balance refers to how the elements of art (line, shape, color, value, space, form, texture) relate to each other within the composition in terms of their visual weight. Visual weight refers to an element’s size and placement value in relation to other elements in the composition.


A gradient is a gradual change from one color or shade to another. In graphic design, gradients can be applied to a number of different elements, such as filling shapes, creating backgrounds, and adding shadows.

Gradients are often used in web design and print design to give an element a more natural look — rather than using a solid color to create the effect of light falling on an object, for example, designers often use gradients.

In graphic design software, you can create gradients by blending two or more colors together. You can control the direction of the gradient (horizontal, vertical, or angled), the distance gradient stops are placed from one another, and how the transition occurs between each color (linear or radial).


In graphic design, a margin is an area between elements on a printed page. Margins are used to define the space around the text, graphics, and other content displayed on a page. The standard page margins are generally set at one inch (25 mm) from each edge of the paper and cannot be changed in most word processing programs without changing the page size itself.

Margins serve several different purposes in graphic design. They are used to define the layout of the document, keep text and images from printing too close to the edges of the page, and establish a visual hierarchy of information.

Color Separation:

CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Key) – CMYK is the standard color mode for full-color printing. It is a subtractive process that mixes the three primary colors (cyan, magenta, and yellow) with black to create a full spectrum of color.

RGB (Red, Green, Blue) – RGB is the standard color mode for digital displays including computer monitors and televisions. It is an additive process that mixes red, green, and blue light to create all other colors.

PMS (Pantone Matching System) – PMS is a universal system of color that allows printers to accurately communicate with designers about ink colors. The system consists of more than 1,000 solid colors and more than 300 metallic and fluorescent colors. The PMS number refers to the precise ink formulation which will be used to print a job.