When I first started out in marketing, I didn’t quite predict that I’d be a part-time designer, too.

Now, in 2017, visual content is more than 40X more likely to get shared on social media than other types of content and it’s become obvious and even necessary for all of us marketers to have at least some basic knowledge of key design terms.

Thankfully, we live in a wonderful world where anyone can make the jump from novice to intermediate and create well-designed images for social media. There are tools like Pablo and Canva that make this design work achievable (and beautiful).

However, tools aside, if you want to take your marketing skills to the next level, improving your understanding of design is essential.

Have you ever wondered what might be possible with just a little extra design knowledge in your back pocket?

Turns out, to take your social media images from good to great, is a reasonable leap. And it all starts with a good foundation and understanding of some key design terms and principles.

If you’re looking to take your social media images to the next level and become a better marketer, check out this design dictionary for a crash course on how to better understand design.

53 design terms explained for marketers

1. Golden ratio

The golden ratio occurs with two objects which, once you divide the larger by the smaller, result in the number 1.6180 (or thereabouts). The most famous golden ratio is the golden rectangle, which can be split into a perfect square and a rectangle the same aspect ratio as the original rectangle. You might see this in image composition or website design and grid layout.

golden-ratio

(via)

By using the golden ratio you can ensure your images are eye-catching and beautifully formatted. Here’s an example of the golden ratio being used to divide space between the body of a website and the sidebar:

golden-ratio-web-design

Below is another example where the key elements of the design all fit within a different section of the Golden Ratio:

132-1324x1649

2. Rule of thirds

You can apply the rule of thirds by imagining a 3×3 grid lying on top of your image and then aligning the subject of the image with the guide lines and their intersection points (e.g. placing the horizon on the top or bottom line) or allowing the elements of the picture to easily flow from section to section.

rule-of-thirds

(via)

Once you have your grid in place, the spots where the lines intersect each other indicate the prime focal areas within your design:

focal-points

line-section

Typography, text, and font terms

3. Typography

“Ty­pog­ra­phy is the vi­sual com­po­nent of the writ­ten word,” Practical Typography beautifully explainsAll visually displayed text, whether on paper, screen or billboard, involves typography.

4. Serif

A serif is the little extra stroke or curves, at the ends of letters.

5. Sans-serif

“Sans” literally means “without”, and a sans serif font does not include any extra stroke at the ends of the letters.

serif

Though there are no set rules for when to use a serif or sans serif font, it’s suggested that sans serif fonts should be used for online body text and serif fonts for headlines and print.

6. Script

Script typefaces are fonts or type based upon historical or modern handwriting styles and are more fluid than traditional typefaces.

A couple of example script fonts include:

Alex Brush;

alex-brush-font

And, Grand Hotel:

grand-hotel-font

7. Slab serif

Slab serif fonts feature geometric feel than traditional serif fonts and feature serifs that square and larger, bolder.

An excellent example of a slab serif font is Museo Slab:

museo-slab

8. Monospace

A monospaced font, (also known as a fixed-pitch, fixed-width, or non-proportional font) is a font whose letters and characters each occupies the same amount of horizontal space.

9. Hierarchy

Typographic hierarchy is an essential part of any design or layout and even if you’re not familiar with the term, you’ll be sure to have seen hierarchy in action on any website, newspaper or magazine.

tuts+ explain:

Typographic hierarchy is a system for organizing type that establishes an order of importance within the data, allowing the reader to easily find what they are looking for and navigate the content. It helps guide the reader’s eye to where a section begins and ends, whilst enabling the user to isolate certain information based on the consistent use of style throughout a body of text.

Here’s an example to illustrate the importance of hierarchy:

hierarchy 2

10. Kerning

Kerning refers to the space between two specific letters (or other characters: numbers, punctuation, etc.) and the process of adjusting that space improves legibility.

kerning-gif

11. Leading

Leading determines how text is spaced vertically in lines. Leading is used when content that has multiple lines of readable text and ensures the distance from the bottom of the words above to the top of the words below has appropriate spacing to make them legible.

leading

12. Tracking

Tracking is similar to kerning in that it refers to the spacing between letters or characters. However, instead of focusing on the spacing between individual letters (kerning), tracking measures space between groups of letters.

13. X-height

The x-height refers to the distance between the baseline and the mean line of lower-case letters in a typeface.

x-height

14. Ascender / Descender

The ascender is the portion of a lowercase letter that extends above the mean line of a font (the x-height). On the other hand, the descender is the portion of a letter that extends below the baseline of a font.

Ascender

15. Orphans / Widows

Widows and Orphans are lines of text that appear at the beginning or end of a paragraph, which are left alone at the top or bottom of a line. There is some debate about the exact definitions of these terms but as a rule of thumb:

  • Orphan: A is a single word or very short line, that appears at the end of a paragraph or the beginning of a column or a page, separated from the rest of the text.
  • Widow: A paragraph-ending line that falls at the beginning of the following page or column, thus separated from the rest of the text. Or the beginning of a new paragraph that starts at the bottom of a column or page.

widow

16. Lorum Ipsum

Lorem Ipsum is simply dummy text used by the design industry. It’s used as placeholder text and has a more-or-less average distribution of letters, making it look like readable English, as opposed to using ‘Add content here, add content here’ within designs when the copy isn’t quite ready.

line-section

Colors

17. RGB

RGB color is a model in which red, green, and blue light are added together in various ways to reproduce a broad array of colors. RGB tends to be used for on-screen purposes.

rgb-color

18. Hex

A hex is a six-digit number used in HTML, CSS, and design software applications to represent colors.

hex

19. Palette

A color palette comprises of colors that can be utilized for any illustration or design work that represents your brand. The chosen colors should be designed to work harmoniously with each other.

pallette

20. Monochrome

Monochrome is used to describe design or photographs in one color or different shades of the single color.

monochrome

21. Analogous

Analogous color schemes use colors that are next to each other on the color wheel. They usually match well and create serene and comfortable designs.

Analogous

22. Complementary

Colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel are considered to be complementary colors (example: red and green).

Complimentary

23. Triadic

A triadic color scheme uses colors that are evenly spaced around the color wheel.

Triadic

24. CMYK

CMYK is a color model that is used for print purposes. CMYK colors begin as white and then get darker as more colors are combined.

CMYK colors

(via)

25. Pantone

The Pantone Matching System (PMS) is a standardized color reproduction system. Every hue is given a number, making it easy for people to reference and reproduce the same colors.

pantone

26. Warm colors

Warm colors are made with red, orange yellow and various combinations of these colors. They give a friendly, happy, cozy vibe.

27. Cool colors

Cool colors such as blue, green and light purple have the ability to calm and soothe.

warm-cool

28. Color theory

Color theories create a logical structure for color. There are three basic categories of color theory: The color wheel, color harmony, and the context of how colors are used. Understanding how to use different colors to convey meaning is an important part of both design and marketing. Here’s a quick guide on how colors affect our brain:

Do you want to learn more about color theory? Check out: Why Facebook Is Blue? The Science of Colors in Marketing.

29. Gradient

A gradient is a gradual change of colors (such as green turning gradually into blue) or a color fading into transparency. There are two common types of gradients: radial and linear.

30. Opacity

Opacity enables us to make an element of a design transparent. The lower the opacity, the more transparent an element is. For example, 100% opacity means an object is solid.

opacity

31. Hue

Essentially, a hue is a way to describe a color. And a hue can be any color on the color wheel. For example, red, blue and yellow are all hues.

32. Tint

A tint is a variety of a color. Craftsy explains that Tints are created when you add white to any hue on the color wheel. This lightens and desaturates the hue, making it less intense.

hue-tint

Branding and logos

33. Logotype

A logotype is the name of a company that is designed in a visually unique way for use by that company. Most of the time when people refer to a logo, they’re referring to the brand’s logotype.

34. Logomark / Brandmark

A logo mark generally does not contain the name of the company and instead more abstractly represents that company using a symbol or mark.

logo

35. Icon

Icons are images used to represent an action or an object. For example, a pen icon could represent someone writing (action) or simply a pen (object). When using, icons think carefully about what you want to signify and how clear it is to your audience.

36. Style guide

A style guide is a set of standards for the design of anything related to your brand, whether it’s a website landing page, business card or printed document. The reason to have a style guide is to ensure complete uniformity in style and formatting wherever the brand is used to ensure no dilution of that brand.

As an example, you can check out our Buffer style guide here.

37. Grid

A grid is constructed from evenly divided columns and rows. The point of a grid is to help designers arrange elements in a consistent way. Here’s an example of the grid we use at Buffer:

grid

Using the Buffer design grid, a page can be divided into fifths, fourths, thirds and halves – and any combination of these. Each grid row must contain parts that add up to one whole. For example, one-fourth + one-half + one-fourth.

line-section

Design Terms and Techniques

38. Scale

In design, scale refers to the size of an object in relationship to another object. Two elements of the same size can be seen as being equal. Whereas elements with a clear variation in size tend to be seen as different.

When putting together a design, think about how you can utilize scale to help you illustrate the meaning behind your image. Take the below example; the larger circle appears to be more influential and important that the smaller one. You could even say the smaller circle may be a little timid or shy.

scale

39. Aspect ratio

An aspect ratio is the proportional relationship between the width and height of a rectangle (a rectangle is used because the vast majority of screens are wider than they are tall). An aspect ratio is defined via a mathematical ratio, with two numbers separated by a colon.

  • width:height
  • This means that 4 inches wide by 3 inches high would be a ratio of 4:3

40. Texture

A texture is defined as the surface characteristics of your image. In design, you can utilize textures such as cloth and brickwork to mirror the visual appearance of the actual texture.

41. Knolling

Knolling is the act of arranging different objects so that they are at 90-degree angles from each other, then photographing them from above. This technique creates a very symmetrical look that feels pleasing to the eye. Images that feature knolling tend to be set against a contrasting solid background.

knolling

(via)

42. White space

Whitespace, often known as negative space, refers to the area of a design left blank. It’s the space between graphic elements, images, copy, and anything else on the page. Even though it’s known as white space, it can be any color.

An excellent example of white space is the Google homepage. It’s almost filled with whitespace to encourage users to focus on the search bar:

Google

43. Resolution

The resolution of an image determines the quality. As a rule of thumb, the higher the resolution, the higher the quality. A high-resolution image will be clear and crisp whereas a low-resolution image will feel a little pixelated and blurry.

high-res

44. Contrast

Contrast occurs when two elements on a page are different. For example, it could be different colors between the text and the background color or dark vs. light colors.

contrast

One of the main reasons to use contrast in your designs is to grab attention. For example, the infamous iPod silhouette adverts were so memorable because there is a huge contrast between the white iPod and earphones and the bright background and silhouette.

ipod2

45. Saturation

Saturation refers to the intensity or purity of a color. The more saturated a color is, the more vivid or brighter it appears. Whereas desaturated colors, appear a little duller.

saturation

Highly saturated images tend to stand out and draw attention, therefore giving the appearance of carrying more weight than less saturated images. If you’re adding a text layer over a picture and would like it to stand out, using a less saturated background can be a great way to do so.

46. Blur

Blur makes images more unclear or less distinct. Using a blur can be a great way to make text stand out when overlaid onto an image. When you put text over an image, the two elements can form a somewhat competitive relationship (example on the left below), a little blur can make the text stand out more and appear much more readable (on the right below).

text-blur

47. Crop

When you crop an image, you’re cutting away and discarding the unnecessary portions of the image. Cropping allows you to change the emphasis or direction of an image.

crop

48. Pixel

A pixel is a minuscule area of a screen (the word comes from “picture element”). Pixels are the smallest basic unit of programmable color on a computer and images are made up of many individual pixels.

49. Skeumorphism

Skeuomorphism is when a digital element is designed to look like a replica of the physical work. For example, think iPhone’s calculator or Apple’s newsstand where the bookshelf and magazines look and feel like they do in real life.

Skeuomorphism

50. Flat

Flat design is a minimalistic approach that focuses on simplicity and usability (almost the opposite of Skeuomorphism). It tends to feature plenty of open space, crisp edges, bright colors and two-dimensional illustrations.

flat

(via)

52. Raster

Raster images are made up of a set grid of pixels. This means when you change the size of stretch a raster image it can get a little blurry and lose some clarity.

53. Vector

Vector images a made up of points, lines, and curves. All of the shapes within a vector are calculated using a mathematical equation which means the image can scale in size without losing any quality. Unlike rasters, vectors won’t get blurry when scaled. You can find some great vector images to use within your designs on sites like Vecteezy.

line-end

Over to you

I hope you found this dive into design terms and definitions helpful. It’s amazing how fast marketers can pick up tools like Canva and Pablo to create beautiful looking images.

I’m curious to hear if there are any other design terms you hear regularly and would like some clarification on? Feel free to share any questions or thoughts in the comments below.

Further reading:

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Written by Ash Read

Content crafter at Buffer. I’m fascinated by storytelling, entrepreneurship, and travel. When I’m not writing, you’ll usually find me on a football pitch or basketball court.

  • Hi Ash,
    This is amazing. It is so important that we use images in today’s world and I do but…. I’ve learned a lot here. When it comes to text, I’m always playing around, now I’ve learned what things stand for and it will be easier for me to choose instead of that hit and miss I’ve been spending time on.

    I love the way you have explained The Golden Ratio. This is something I was trying to do when I put up a Facebook Ad. I have such a better understanding of it now.

    I’m bookmarking this post because it is so useful and I thank you so much for putting this all together. A must share!

    -Donna

    • Hey Donna,

      Great to hear you found this one interesting. Text is such an interesting one to tackle, I’ve spent countless hours in photshop playing around with different tools and never quite understood what they were doing until I dived a little deeper into design. So glad the golden ratio explanation helped out a little, too.

      Thanks a million for your comment, Donna. Please feel free to reach out if we can clear up any other design questions.

      Cheers
      Ash

  • This is absolutely brilliant, Ash! Thank you for your in-depth analysis.
    Great post!

    • Thanks @disqus_abramov:disqus 🙂

  • Excellent Article 🙂

    • Thanks, Tahir! Much appreciated 🙂

  • Johnny Trash

    This is everything I actually learned in Graphic Design 101 and maybe a little more. You explain these terms in very understandable language and chose the perfect terms to identify. You can bet i’ll be sharing this post with the fledgling web designers I mentor.

    • Wow, thanks so much @johnnytrash:disqus 🙂 It’s made my day to read your comment. So glad you found this one interesting and appreciate you sharing it 🙂

  • Ademola Abimbola

    Awesome post! I learned a lot. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks for reading @mauconline:disqus

  • Hi, Ash. Your post is great and very useful. Still, I think you have to outsource the design part for your product or business. Yes, it’s good to have some knowlegde about design, but let the masters do their job. My 2 cents 😉

    • Heya @@adinajipa:disqus 🙂 Great point! I completely agree that key design tasks should be handled by the pro’s, you can’t beat a working with a top designer. I think a little understanding of design is super helpful for tackling smaller tasks like social media images and can also help when communicating with designers. Appreciate the comment 🙂

      • Yep, that little understanding keeps you efficient on your tasks.

  • Calvert Trust Exmoor

    useful thanks, great listicle. We think you might have got a bit over enthusiastic with the ‘e’ key on 41 though! 🙂 “90-degreeee angles”

    • Thanks so much for sharing, that’s a great spot 🙂 Just updated this one.

  • cindyboogle

    We love to watch movie more than reading a book. This shows we are more attracted towards colours , videos and images. Therefore to attract costumers these days we need to make our website more attractive and unique taking help from http://www.acompworld.com. Beauty has its importance.

  • Wow, Ash.

    I didn’t expect a full-on course on web design at all. I’ve learned quite a bit about composition from your post. I especially like what you shared on typography since I’ve never know how to combine fonts, or things like hierarchy and leading… there’s a lot learn!

    Usually I’d just copy which ever letter combination that has on Canva templates but you make me one to try my hands at this sometimes. On a scale of 1 – 10, how complicated do is the art of typography?

    Cheers,
    Anh

    P.S. Buffered!

  • Vera

    Hi Ash, as a non-designer I enjoyed your post extremely especially the visuals that you provided.
    However, I disagree with the comment on serif fonts for headlines. The ‘little feet’ as I call them when I teach fonts in presentations were invented to guide the eyes along a line in a paragraph. Therefore, a headline doesn’t need those.

  • Amber Williamson

    really great – thanks Buffer!

  • John Smith Jr

    Hi I am a longtime professional marketer and designer as well with a MBA and a MArch. This is great post and a great read for non designers. But to be clear knowing the rules does not make you a professional player. Great design is like great positioning and product marketing – you need to have a different, valued , and differential product that is easily distinguished from others – i.e. templates are not going to do it. Template and cookie cutter design sounds appealing but in the end you look – well the same. I am all in favor of DIY – but also lets not try and say DIY is going to replace the skill of someone with decades of experience. Experience that knows a design deadend before it arrives.The human eye absorbs visual data 60,000 times more efficiently than type and even small errors and incongruities are quickly picked up and magnified in visuals.

    If your budget permits hire a professional – otherwise keep reading and practicing and you can go a long way by yourself.

  • Janet Reasoner

    Great post! I’m working on a website revision and this is extremely helpful. I do have one question, however. You say “Though there are no set rules for when to use a serif or sans serif font, it’s suggested that sans serif fonts should be used for online body text and serif fonts for headlines and print.” But I notice that this page uses a sans serif font for the headlines and headers and a serif font for the body text. Am I just confused or is this a mis-typed sentence?

  • This list is so very awesome. Feel sort of embarrassed that there were a few terms in here that weren’t necessarily new to me, but my understanding of them was a bit vague. I’ve been in and around design for over 10 years, so thanks for the refresher Ash!

    Think it’s vital for marketers today to not just have an understanding of design but even more technical knowledge, like a bit of HTML/CSS. Not saying they need to be able to build a webpage, but be able to understand limitations and and possibilities.

  • psgganesh

    Wow, clarity from the first line to last, thanks Ash

  • Jeremy Christopher

    Nice. Curious what 51 was though.

  • Marta Aw

    Very helpful. Thanks.