Graphic Design Glossary


Terms your designer is using,
but you don’t know what they mean

Every field has it’s own set of terms—words that when thrown around in conversation with people outside your expertise just sound like a foreign language. Graphic Design is no different. Below you’ll find a list of 10 words or abbreviations I use frequently, and their definition in layman’s terms.


CMYK stands for Cyan Magenta Yellow Black. It’s these basic four colors which a printing press mixes to produce all colors. For instance, a mix of 100% Cyan and 100% Yellow (and 0% magenta and black) will produce a green color. CMYK color breakdowns are primarily used for printing.


RGB stands for Red Green Blue. Red, green, and blue light are added together to make the array of colors seen on our computer screen. RGB color breakdowns are primarily used for websites, or anything you might be viewing on a screen.


A PMS color is a specially mixed color from the Pantone Matching System®. Using a PMS color means that the specified color is not printed using a mix of CMYK (as described above). There is more control available when specifying a PMS color, and the color that goes on the paper will often look richer than the CMYK counterpart. There are also many colors that you can achieve in PMS which you cannot achieve in CMYK.

4-Color Process

This is a printing term. It refers to printing using CMYK.

Spot Color

Another printing term. A spot color typically refers to any color that is used outside of the CMYK spectrum (most often, this means a PMS color).

Vector File / Vector Art

A vector file is any illustrated image that can be scaled infinitely without loss of quality. A photo cannot be a vector file. Typical types of vector files include .ai files (a file created in Adobe Illustrator) and .eps files.

Stock Art

Stock art is a photo or illustration which you can purchase for use. Stock art is typically a less costly alternative to hiring a photographer or illustrator. Stock art is classified in one of two ways, as either royalty-free or rights-managed (see subsequent entries).


Royalty-free refers to stock art that can be purchased and used however you like, as often as you want. For instance, you can purchase a royalty-free photo and use it on the cover of your brochure, your website, and your billboards, and all you pay is a one-time fee.


Rights-managed refers to stock art that you purchase selective rights to. For instance, you can choose the amount of time you will use the image, the size it will be, the number of places it will appear, and the industry it will promote. All these factors affect the cost. If you choose to then use the photo somewhere you didn’t initially specify (let’s say you purchase a photo to use on your brochure, but then later decide you also would like to use it on your website), you have to re-purchase the image.


Bleed is a printing term which refers to color that runs off the edge of the page. When you print anything with ‘bleed’, you have to print a page that is larger than the size it will be cut down to. The designer extends the color beyond the boundaries of the page, so when the page is trimmed, the color extends right to the edge. If your design has white all the way around it (for instance, a business card with a white border), it has no bleed.

Wondering the meaning behind another graphic design term? Leave a comment below and I’ll add it to future glossary posts!