Glossary of Design Terms
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Last updated: May 21, 2021
An interface design feature that gives the user an indication of how that feature can be interacted with. Donald Norman explains affordances in “The Design of Everyday Things”:
“Affordances provide strong clues to the operations of things. Plates are for pushing. Knobs are for turning. Slots are for inserting things into. Balls are for throwing or bouncing. When affordances are taken advantage of, the user knows what to do just by looking: no picture, label, or instruction needed.”
Analogous colour palette
A colour palette made up of hues that are next to each other on the colour wheel — for example, red, orange, and yellow.
The aspect ratio of an image, screen, or other visual field is a description of its proportions. For example, an image that is 400 pixels wide and 300 pixels high has an aspect ratio of 4:3, and a standard HD television screen has an aspect ratio of 16:9.
In typography and typesetting, the baseline refers to the line — usually unmarked — that text sits on.
The baseline grid is a kind of layout grid, where page elements are aligned to text baselines. The baseline grid is also used to ensure that all the text in different columns observes the same baselines.
Bleed (print design)
In print design, the bleed is a printed area beyond the intended trim line. Print designers will ensure that any elements that are intended to meet the edge of the page are also designed to fill the bleed. This practice is observed because the page may be trimmed in a slightly different position, depending on the tolerances of the printer’s equipment.
The term contrast ratio refers to the perceived difference in brightness between two colours. Selecting colours with a high contrast ratio is important for text, because low contrast makes reading harder, especially for those with visual impairments.
Contrast ratio ranges from 1:1 (for example, white text on a white background) to 21:1 (black text on a white background). Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) require a contrast ratio of at least 7:1 for body text.
A critical friend is someone who has both 1) the right level of knowledge or skill in an area to form and communicate an informed, critical opinion on your work, and 2) a position within your organisation or social network which allows you to trust them without fear of bias, malice, or personal judgement.
A colour mixing system used in printing. It involves superimposing four different inks: cyan (C), magenta (M), yellow (Y), and black (K). It is often called process printing.
In the context of design, copy simply refers to text that has been written or provided for a project. Copywriting is the discipline of creating that text, and copywriters are the professionals who do it. The word microcopy is also used to refer to very short segments of text in apps and websites — for example, headings, labels, and button text.
In both graphic design and digital product design, the term deliverable is used to refer to each item that needs to be “delivered” during a project. For example, deliverables for a logo design project might include a set of image files containing the logo, and a document explaining how to use it.
A grid is a system for organising content in a visual field. A grid is typically formed of rows, columns, or both.
Gutter (grid systems)
In grid systems, the gutter is the space between two columns or two rows.
Gutter (print design)
In print design, the gutter is the area of a page that runs into the spine.
Handgloves is a word often used by designers — type designers in particular — to get an overview of all the shapes and details in a typeface. The letters in it represent all of the most common strokes in the alphabet.
JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group) is a compressed, lossy raster image file format designed for saving photos for use on the web. The JPEG compression algorithm creates file sizes that are dramatically smaller than other image file formats like TIFF. JPEG compression ranges from level 1 (very high compression, creating very small, very lossy files) to 12 (relatively low compression, creating relatively large, relatively lossless files).
When type designers create fonts, they can save kerning pairs within the font file. Each kerning pair is a bit of information that tells your computer how much space to put between specific letter pairs wherever they occur. For example, a type designer might create a kerning pair for “ko”.
Any file compression method that preserves the original image, video, or sound quality is described as lossless. For example, PNG is a lossless raster image file format.
Any file compression method that results in reduced image, video, or sound quality is described as lossy. For example, JPEG is a lossy raster image file format.
Margin (in grid systems)
In grid systems, the margin is the space between the edge of the grid and the edge of the page or screen.
In print design, page furniture refers to repeated elements like page numbers, headers, and footers. They often sit outside the layout grid, but may still be aligned to the grid’s margins.
Pixel size is a unit of measurement used in digital design. As a measurement, one pixel used to correspond to one pixel on someone’s screen. Today, high-definition screens are in use. For those screens, one “traditional” pixel will be mapped onto a grid of either 2-by-2 (“2x”) or 3-by-3 (“3x”) pixels.
Here’s an illustration that shows how text set to 16px size maps to physical pixels on regular (1x), high-definition (2x) and ultra-high-definition (3x) screens.
16px text on standard, HD, and UHD screens.
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Point size is an imperial unit of measurement used in typography. One point is equivalent to 1/72 of an inch, or 0.3528 millimetres. Although it’s still widely used in print design, in digital design fonts are often now measured in pixels.
PNG (Portable Network Graphics) is a compressed, lossless raster image file format designed for web graphics with large areas of solid colour. PNG should not be used for photographic image content, because it will create very large files. The preferred image file format for photos is JPG.
In print design, proofs are digital (“soft proof”) or printed (“hard proof”) previews of how a design is going to look once printed. Proofs are usually provided by printers to designers and clients, and are typically the last chance for review before a project goes to print. They are also known as pre-print proofs, pre-press proofs and final proofs.
In the context of image editing, raster basically refers to image files that are made up of pixels — like JPEGs, PNGs, GIFs, and TIFFs. These are different from vector image files like SVGs, which are made up of mathematical information about shapes, points, and curves.
Saddle-stitch binding is a bookbinding method in which several sheets of paper are grouped, folded down the centre, and then stitched or stapled together. A number of these separate saddle-stitched booklets may then be glued together to form a book.
SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) is a vector image file format that is made up of mathematical information about shapes, points, and curves. Like all vector image file formats, SVGs can be scaled to any size without losing quality. SVGs can also create very small files compared to raster image file formats. (However, SVGs that contain complex shapes — for example, a lot of flattened text — can end up being much bigger than an equivalent PNG or JPEG.)
A thumbnail sketch is a quick, zoomed-out version of a design, which can be created quickly and allow you to rapidly move through different ideas. Thumbnail sketches don’t include any details, and just use lines and shapes to represent text and graphics.
TIFF (Tagged Image File Format) is an uncompressed raster image file format. It is often used by designers for high-quality, high-resolution photos and graphics that are intended for print. However, TIFF files are extremely large, and can be difficult to send over network connections. TIFF is not a suitable file format for use on websites.