Decoding Design Speak: What Do Designers Mean When They Say…

Decoding Design Speak: What Do Designers Mean When They Say…

Design has its own language. This short dictionary gives you an idea of how to communicate with—and talk like—graphic designers.

Graphic designers can be a confusing bunch, at times seeming to speak in an entirely different language. Whether you’re hoping to join the designer ranks or simply want to better understand what’s going on in your next design meeting, this list of translated “design jargon” will prove indispensable.

From flushing type to using white space, this quick go-to guide will help you to decode design speak. Before you know it, you’ll be telling somebody to get rid of an orphan*!

*Hint: it’s not as heartless as it sounds . . .

1. Clean it up

Don’t worry, you’ve not signed up for a cleaning job. Even though this sounds mildly threatening, it actually means simply to remove excess stuff from the design. The page look a little overcrowded or cluttered. A clean, more attractive layout champions white space (see below) and minimal design.

Cleaning IllustrationAvoid too much white space. Image by contributor ivector.

2. Flush it

Nope, not down the toilet. Flushing refers to pushing text either to the left, right, or center, of the layout. So, flush it left means to align the paragraph to the left side of the page.

Grocery IllustrationBe mindful of your text alignment. Image by contributor ivector.

3. Get Rid of that Widow/Orphan

You might be looking over your shoulder expecting to see some sad-looking, Dickensian character standing behind you. But, bring your eyes back to the layout.

A widow is a lone word, or couple of words, at the end of a paragraph or page.

An orphan is similar, but it appears at the top of a page.

Young Child IllustrationMessy typography distracts from the user experience. Image by contributor ivector.

Designers hate these, as they have the power to make typography look messy. Luckily, tweaking the tracking (letter-spacing) of a few sentences, or even just a word or two, can make them magically disappear.

Pick up more typography tips by reading up on the difference between kerning, leading, and tracking.

4. Get a Proof

Not proof of a crime (“What crime? I never did it, I swear!”). Breathe easy. The designer is asking for a pre-press proof of the design.

Detective IllustrationA proof is simply a printout of your design. Image by contributor ivector.

Only relevant in the context of print design, a proof is a single printout of your design that you can request from your printer. In design agencies, this proof will normally have to be checked by the design team or project manager, and signed off before the full print job is approved.

The purpose of a proof? To identify technical specs, such as the color quality, margin width, and font size, as well as check for spelling errors or typos, before committing to the final print job.

5. Make it Warm/Cool

This has little to do with physical temperature, although it’s true that particular colors can feel either warm or cool.

For warm, increase the presence of colors that fall into the hotter end of the spectrum, such as reds, oranges, yellows, and golds.

For cool, look to blue, purple, green, and silver to cool everything down.

Or, for for perfect balance, try to mix a little warm with a little cool in your palette. The temperature of each will create a layout that feels, in the words of the Three Little Bears, just right.

Discover 101 color combination ideas to inspire your next design project.

Winter IllustrationYou want a good balance of cool and warm when it comes to color palette. Image by contributor ivector.

6. Make it On-Trend

The word trendy has distinctly fallen from favor among designers of late, and no wonder. The last time anyone said the word was probably your grandma when you showed her your first-day-of-college outfit.

Trend IllustrationBeing “on-trend” just means being “relevant” in the commercial market. Image by contributor ivector.

On-trend is more acceptable, but it’s still confusingly vague. Bowing to trends often compromises on the quality and uniqueness of the design, but many clients will want designers to be sensitive to trends to help their products feel relevant in the commercial market.

If you’re asked to make something look on-trend, do a little research into trending typeface styles, colors, and photography styles to inject a bit of now-ness into your work.

Get ahead of the curve with this guide to the most-anticipated graphic design styles for 2021.

7. Make it Vintage/Retro/Old-School

As well as being highly-confusing individuals, designers are also a remarkably unoriginal lot. We frequently look to the past to gather references for our own work, terming designs vintage or retro in style as a result. Never has this been a more popular approach in graphic design than now, with the comfort of nostalgia marketing proven to have significant selling power in the millennial market.

Read up about the impact of 1990s nostalgia marketing in branding and advertising today.

Because design draws on references from various eras and places from the past, you’ll often hear designers use a whole new vocabulary referring to design that borrows from established styles.

Vintage has the broadest meaning, and refers to any design that borrows stylistic traits from the past.

Dancing IllustrationKnow the difference between vintage, retro, and old-school! Image by contributor ivector.

However, compared to retro and old-school, which are often tied to 1970s, 1980s, or such-bad-taste-it’s-good design, vintage often has more affiliation with 19th century styling. In turn, this relates to hipster design, which generally is how designers adapt 19th and early-20th century styles to appeal to a young market.

Still confused? Don’t worry. You can read up on what exactly vintage means now in this article.

8. Make it Modern/Contemporary

Has there ever been a word with broader meaning than modern?

Virtual ImplicationsMake sure to clarify whether the client wants “modern” or “modernist.” There’s a difference. Image by contributor ivector.

For many design historians, modern refers to a particular period of 20th century architecture, furniture, and graphic design, that began with the Modernist Bauhaus movement in the early 20th century, before moving through Mid-Century Modern in the 1950s and ending in the Post-Modern and Brutalist movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

For the casual designer, throwing out the word modern in a meeting, however, the term is more likely to mean fresh, new, and up-to-date (not unlike the meaning assigned to on-trend, see above). You’ll need to clarify whether they actually want modernist, which gives designs a retro, Mid-Century Modern flavor.

If they throw out the word contemporary, see on-trend above. We designers are really confusing types.

Give your branding a cutting-edge look with our pick of the best 25 modern fonts.

9. We Need More White Space!

For non-designers, this is particularly confusing as white space doesn’t necessarily have to be white.

White space is blank (or even patterned) space where no major elements, such as type or graphics, are present. A finely-struck balance of white space and busier elements on the page make designers happy.

Working IllustrationYou want a good balance of white space vs. busier elements. Image by contributor ivector.

Looking for more graphic design tips? Now that you’ve been initiated into the jargon-filled world of graphic design, you’re ready to learn more! Check these out:

Minimalism vs. Maximalism in the Graphic Design WorldThe Most Anticipated Graphic Design Styles for 2021Typography Essentials: The Only Four Things You Need to KnowDIY Design School: 12 Tips to Learn Design On Your OwnAstrology in Design: Why Brands are Looking to the Stars for Inspiration

Cover image by Jacob Lund.

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