type color and image jargon

A Non-Designers Guide to Design Jargon: Color & Image

September 14, 2021

Whether you are a small business owner working with a design team, a content creator who enlists the help of a freelance graphic designer, or a lady with a side hustle creating your own visual content, it’s important to know and understand design basics and terminology so that you can more effectively communicate with the visual designers you collaborate with and better understand content surrounding the topic as you learn more about design.

Now, like with any profession, there are a lot of nitty gritty details and information surrounding graphic design, but what I’m focusing on here is the information that will best help you as a non-designer or DIY designer. In order to do this, I have broken down the information into different category based articles and focus on terms that I think will be more useful to you.

This week’s designer jargon topic is color and image. Whether you are working with a designer, hunting through stock photography for your brand, or buying premade graphics, it is important to understand to terms used to describe this topic so that you can get exactly what you need for your purposes.


1. CMYK | Stands for cyan, magenta, yellow, and key (black). This is the color mode used for printing and has to do with how the colors are mixed.

2. RGB | This is the digital color mode and stands for red, blue green.

infographic CMYK vs RGB colors

Designer Tip: If you are purchasing graphics or images the color mode they come in is important because it can really affect the way the colors look in their destined formats. When using graphics/images on websites or formats that are digital you will want them to be in RGB, but if they’ll be printed they should be in CMYK. If you’re not paying much attention to these kinds of details colors can get really wonky and leave you confused when it’s time to print or use the graphics.

3. Pantone | A universal color matching system that helps designers and printers keep them consistent across all formats. They’re labeled with a three to four number identifier and include almost 10,000 colors.

graphic illustration of orange pink and grey Pantone swatches

4. Saturation | Refers to the intensity of colors. When you increase the saturation of an image the colors become very bright and overpowering, while decreasing saturation with make them look washed out and greyer.

graphic for blog about color

5. Hue | The six primary and secondary colors at their purest form before any other colors (including black and white) are added to them: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet.

6. Tint | The result of mixing a pure color with white

7. Tone | The result of mixing a pure color with grey

8. Shade | The result of mixing a pure color with black

orange hue tint tone and shade graphic

9. Gradient | When you have two or more different colors that blend and transition into another in a single space.

orange and pink color gradient ombre

10. Image resolution | The amount of detail of in an image. A low resolution image lacks detail and will often be described as pixelated, while a high resolution image has lots of detail and looks really smooth.

Designer Tip: If you can, always get a higher resolution image because you can always decrease the resolution (usually to reduce a files size), but things get really tricky when you want to increase it from a low resolution. It is also important to note that higher resolutions mean bigger file sizes and more data to store.

goldfish girl creative logo high resolution vs low resolution

11. Pixel | The smallest measurable area on a screen. These are the tiny squares or blocks that make up the digital images on your screen. When someone says an image looks “pixelated”, they are saying that they can see the little squares that make up the image.

12. DPI | Stand for “dots per inch” and is a way designers measure resolution of a printed image.

13. PPI | Stands for “pixels per inch” and is another way we measure resolution, but of a digital image.

Designer Tip: Higher DPIs and PPIs will have a higher resolution and more detail, while lower DPIs and PPIs will have a lower resolution and less detail. Images used digitally, like on a website, are usually 72 PPI (also called screen resolution) and images used in print usually need to be 300 DPI or higher. Beware, using higher resolution images on websites will slow it down considerably and cause image loading to lag (or not load at all), so bigger is not always better.

14. Vector | Refers to graphics and digital artwork that is made up of points, lines, and curves, instead of pixel squares.

Designer Tip: Vector graphics are great because, unlike pixel based graphics, no mater how much you zoom in and out or resize the image it will remain the same and you don’t have to worry about reduced quality. Vector based images can only be made digitally, so things like photographs cannot be vector.

15. Raster or Bitmap | Graphics or images that are made up of pixels instead of vector lines, curves, and points. This includes things like photographs.

goldfish girl creative logo vector vs raster image

16. Stock Photography | Photos that you buy a license (or pay a fee) to use. Instead of hiring a photographer, people and brands can sometimes find images online that match their needs and pay via an online platform or ecommerce site to download and use.


Please note: the ”Pantone swatches” illustrated above are not from or depict actual swatches from the corporation Pantone and were illustrated to represent an example of what one may look like for educational purposes only.