28 Graphic Design Terms Every Marketer Needs to Know in 2024

As a marketer, you may not be a graphic design expert, but you likely work closely with designers to create stunning visuals for your brand. However, sometimes it can feel like designers are speaking a different language with terms like "kerning," "CMYK," and "hierarchy."

Never feel lost during a conversation with your design team again. Check out this list of 28 essential graphic design terms every marketer needs to know, complete with definitions, examples, and practical applications.

Understanding the Basics: Design Fundamentals

First, let‘s cover the fundamental principles and elements all designs are built on. Mastering these core concepts will give you a strong foundation for communicating with designers and providing helpful feedback.

1. Typography

Typography is the art and technique of arranging type, including font choice, size, spacing, and layout, to make written language readable and visually appealing.

Practical application: Typography has a huge impact on the personality and readability of your marketing materials. For example, a playful, decorative font conveys a very different vibe than a classic serif.

2. Color Theory

Color theory is the science and art of using color. It explains how humans perceive color, how colors mix, match or clash, and the message colors communicate.

According to a study by WebPageFX, people make a subconscious judgment about an environment or product within 90 seconds of initial viewing, and up to 90% of that assessment is based on color alone.

Color Common Associations
Red Passion, energy, danger, love, urgency
Blue Trust, security, calm, responsibility, wisdom
Yellow Happiness, optimism, warning, creativity, curiosity
Green Nature, growth, freshness, wealth, health

Practical application: Choosing the right colors for your brand and marketing visuals is key to evoking the desired emotions and actions in your audience.

3. Composition

Composition refers to the placement or arrangement of visual elements in a work of art or design. Effective composition guides the viewer‘s eye through the piece and emphasizes the most important elements.

Key principles of composition include:

  • Balance – Evenly distributing visual weight
  • Emphasis – Drawing attention to the focal point
  • Movement – Leading the eye through the design
  • Contrast – Juxtaposing different elements
  • White space – Intentional empty space to let the design breathe

Practical application: A well-composed layout in your ad, website, or social media graphic will attract attention, communicate clearly, and guide your audience to take the desired action.

4. Hierarchy

Hierarchy is the arrangement and organization of design elements in order of importance, usually achieved through different visual characteristics. Establishing clear hierarchy is crucial to guide your audience‘s attention and communicate your message effectively.

The most common techniques to create visual hierarchy are:

  • Size – Making the most important elements largest
  • Color – Using bold, contrasting colors to draw attention
  • Spacing – Isolating key elements with more white space around them
  • Placement – Putting the most important info top/center

Practical application: Use hierarchy in your designs to make the most crucial information (like headline, CTA button) pop and guide your audience‘s eyes through the content in the order you intend.

5. Negative/White Space

Negative or white space refers to the empty space around and between design elements. Despite the name, this space isn‘t always white – it just refers to the absence of visual elements.

"White space is to be regarded as an active element, not a passive background," said Jan Tschichold, famous typographer and book designer.

Benefits of thoughtful negative space in design include:

  • Increased legibility and comprehension
  • Creates a sense of elegance and sophistication
  • Focuses attention on key elements
  • Gives the design room to breathe

Practical application: Don‘t be tempted to fill every pixel – embrace some strategic negative space to make your messaging and visuals more powerful and polished.

Image File Types: Raster vs. Vector

Designs and graphics can come in many different file types, each with their own uses, advantages, and disadvantages. Here‘s what marketers need to know about the two main categories: raster and vector.

Raster Graphics

A raster graphic is made up of a rectangular grid of pixels. Each pixel is assigned a specific color, and together they form the complete image. The number of pixels in a given space is known as resolution, measured in DPI (dots per inch) or PPI (pixels per inch). The more pixels, the higher the resolution and the crisper the image.

Common raster file types:

  • JPG/JPEG – Compresses images, sacrificing some quality. Best for photographs.
  • PNG – Lossless compression and supports transparency. Best for graphics and screenshots.
  • GIF – Supports animation but is limited to only 256 colors. Best for simple animated graphics.

Pros of raster:

  • Rich detail and color for photorealistic images
  • Most common file type for digital photographs

Cons of raster:

  • Large file sizes
  • Loses quality when scaled up

Practical application: Understanding raster file types will help you choose the best format for the job – JPGs for photos, PNGs for graphics, and GIFs for simple animations.

Vector Graphics

A vector graphic uses mathematical equations and geometric primitives (points, lines, curves) to represent images. Instead of a grid of pixels, vector graphics are composed of scalable objects. No matter how much you zoom in or scale up, the graphic maintains its high resolution and clean edges.

Common vector file types:

  • EPS – Editable vector format that can be opened by many programs
  • SVG – Increasingly popular for responsive web design because it can scale infinitely
  • AI – Native format for Adobe Illustrator
  • PDF – Universal format that preserves vectors and can be viewed by anyone

Pros of vector:

  • Infinitely scalable without losing quality
  • Small file sizes
  • Easily editable

Cons of vector:

  • Not ideal for photorealistic images
  • Fewer effects and filters compared to raster editors

Practical application: Your brand logo and other key visuals should be created as vectors so they look sharp at any size – from business card to billboard.

Leveling Up: Advanced Design Terminology

Once you‘ve got the fundamentals down, dive into these more advanced graphic design concepts to really wow your designer colleagues.

Kerning

Kerning is the process of adjusting the spacing between characters in a proportional font, usually to achieve a visually pleasing result and even texture. Tightening kerning (reducing letterspacing) can help improve the legibility of some fonts, especially at larger sizes.

Fun fact: The word "kerning" comes from the French word "carne," meaning "projecting angle, quill of a pen."

Practical application: If your headline or key text looks awkwardly spaced, try adjusting the kerning for a more polished, professional appearance.

Leading

Leading (pronounced "ledding") refers to the space between lines of text, measured from baseline to baseline. The name originated from strips of lead hand-typesetters used to separate lines of text back in the day.

Increasing leading can improve readability, while decreasing it can help fit more text in a tighter space. A good rule of thumb is to set leading at approximately 120% of the point size.

Practical application: Appropriate leading ensures your body copy is optimally spaced for reading, neither too cramped nor too spread out.

Tracking

Tracking is the overall horizontal spacing between groups of letters or entire words. Unlike kerning, tracking applies uniform space between each character. Increasing tracking can help create a more open, airy feel, while decreasing it tightens the spacing for a denser look.

Practical application: Adjusting tracking can dramatically change the overall visual tone of your typography from clean and modern to cozy and vintage.

Bleed

Bleed is the area that extends beyond the trim edge of your printed design, usually an extra .125 inch. This extra bleed space prevents slivers of white from showing on the edges of the document in case the cuts are slightly misaligned.

Practical application: When creating print designs, always include the specified bleed area to avoid unwanted white borders.

CMYK vs. RGB

CMYK and RGB are the two main color spaces designers use.

  • CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Key/Black) is a subtractive color model used for print, referring to the four ink plates used by most color printers.
  • RGB (Red, Green, Blue) is an additive color model used for digital screens and based on how our eyes perceive color.

The key differences between CMYK and RGB are:

CMYK RGB
Used for Print Digital screens
Color range Smaller gamut Wider gamut
File size Larger Smaller
Appearance Often duller More vibrant

Practical application: Make sure your designs are set up in the correct color space for their final output to avoid unexpected color shifts – CMYK for print pieces, RGB for anything on screen.

Bringing It All Together: Design in Practice

Understanding these key graphic design terms and concepts empowers you to communicate more effectively with designers, give helpful feedback, and ensure your marketing visuals are as strategic and impactful as possible.

Whether you‘re designing an event flyer, a social media campaign, or your company‘s entire brand identity, apply these fundamentals:

  1. Establish a clear hierarchy: Use size, color, and placement to guide your audience through the information in your preferred order.

  2. Choose fonts with intention: Typography greatly influences the personality and readability of your piece. Select fonts that fit your brand and message.

  3. Harness the power of color psychology: The colors you choose can attract attention, evoke specific emotions, and persuade action. Refer to color theory when building your brand palette.

  4. Embrace negative space: Give your design elements room to breathe with thoughtful white space – it‘s just as important as the occupied areas.

  5. Consider composition: Arrange visual components intentionally to create balance, flow, and emphasis. Each item should contribute to the overall message.

  6. Prepare files for the final output: If you‘re designing for print, include a bleed, check your resolution, and export in CMYK. For digital, use RGB and optimize the file size.

Still feeling overwhelmed by the intricacies of graphic design? Working with a skilled designer you trust is the best way to bring your creative visions to life. And now that you‘re armed with this vocabulary of design terms, you can approach those conversations and collaborations with confidence.

Helpful Resources to Continue Learning

Hungry for more graphic design knowledge? Sink your teeth into these expert resources:

  • Canva‘s Design School – Online courses in design fundamentals
  • Creative Bloq – Up-to-date news and inspiration from the design world
  • Logo Design Love – Educational articles and examples all about effective logo design by David Airey
  • The Futur – Video tutorials on practical design and business skills by Chris Do

With a stronger grasp on design lingo and best practices, you‘re well on your way to leveling up your brand‘s visuals and marketing materials. So go flex your newfound knowledge and make something beautiful.