Common Design Terms Non-Designers May Find Confusing

Learning jargon of a specific profession is like trying to understand a language you've come across for the first time. While some might sound familiar to what you know, most are still right along the grey areas of understanding. 

If you've got a designer in your life - a friend, a family member, a co-worker - or if you're a budding designer yourself, relax and take a breather. I'm here to help. 


Serif Typeface

These typefaces are characterized by the small strokes (serifs) attached at the end of vertical and horizontal lines. Serifs give a sense of professionalism and authority, so if that's the message you're going for (maybe you're creating a political-themed poster), use this typeface.


Sans Serif Typeface

"Sans" roughly means "without", meaning this typeface has no decorative small strokes at the ends. This typeface gives off a fresh, clean, and modern vibe unlike their serif opposite.


Display Type

If you want to attract attention, use display types. Examples could be movie titles on posters, newspaper headlines, and others.



In design, the way elements are visually arranged signify their level of importance. For example, you may make the headline big and bold in contrast to a small captions on images. Think of what you want your readers to see first and which elements to remember. 


Body Copy

This is the main body of text on your design. The paragraphs of a blog post, a magazine article, and even this one are examples of body text.



This is the space adjustment between two characters in a type. This helps give a more proportioned, balanced look to the space between your characters.



Leading (pronounced "leding" is the space between lines of your type. Loose leading will make your paragraphs look really loose and unpleasant while tight leading suffocates the letters and renders them unreadable. It's important to find balance between the two. 



This is concerned with the space between letters. With tracking, it's about adjusting space between all letters in a word to change how spread out it looks. With kerning, you adjust the space between individual pairs of letters, a select few to maintain balance overall.


Orphans and Widows

In a column of text, these are the short lines or words that appear at the end and start of each column. They're the loose ends of the paragraph they're part of (poor things). Ever read a newspaper? You'll find a few of them there at times.


Ascenders & Descenders

Ascenders are parts of a lowercase letter that extends above the x-height (the height of lowercase letters). You'll find them in letter d's, f's, and b's, among others.

Descenders are parts of a lowercase letter that extends below the x-height. Some examples are g's, j's, and q's.  



A palette is a selection of colors you use on your design. They're often used before the design process itself to get a feel for the tone of your output and to see which colors can work with what. 


CMYK, RGB, & Pantone (PMS)

CMYK (or Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, & Key) is a color mode used for print. This is a subtractive color, meaning we begin with white and end up with black. When we add more color, we get darker results. 

RGB (or Red, Green, Blue) is the color mode for on-screen projects. As an additive, this is the opposite of CMYK in that as we add more color, we get closer to white.

Pantone is the standard system of colors for printing. Pantone shades are numbered, making it easier for us to identify specific shades of color.  



The measure of an object or element's transparency. The higher the opacity, the less transparent the object will be. 


Stock Photos

Stock photos are free or paid images available online for licensing. Some people find it easier to just buy a stock photo instead of hiring a photographer, or if their designer doesn't have an applicable photo in their stash for a current need.  

Some favorites of mine are Unsplash, Pexels, and Bigstock (paid).


Rule of Thirds

This is a design theory where an image is divided with two vertical and two horizontal lines (to make a grid). The areas where the lines intersect serve as focal points of the design.


Brandmark & Logotype

Brandmarks are a type of logo design where symbols are used instead of the company name. A popular example would be Apple Inc.'s "apple" logo. Brandmarks can often be accompanied by a logotype.

Logotypes are logos where the name of the company is created in a visually appealing way. Some brands could be Disney, Ikea, and CNN.


Negative Space

Also called "white space", this refers to the blank areas of a design. This blog, for example, has a lot of negative space where I have chosen to keep unlittered with content. This is to give the design some "room to breathe" and keep it from looking complicated and untidy.


Lorem Ipsum

Ah, the favorite. Also known as "dummy copy", lorem ipsum is there to fill in bodies of text for mock designs, to fill in placeholders for text when you want to get the general feel of how it would look once real body copy is put in. 


So, there you go. These are just some of the terms designers use when talking about their designs, and hopefully I was able to help in explaining certain words to you. As a designer (or not), you have to understand that although knowing these terms are important to note (and will make you appear knowledgeable), it's not the be all, end all. 

If you have any questions, leave a comment and I'll do my best to help!