By Published On: July 13, 2022

A down and dirty guide to help non-designers communicate with actual designers

If you’re not formally trained in design but need to communicate with designers who speak in what sometimes feel like a foreign language, this article should help clarify some things. It should also serve as a reminder that, even with all the self-serve design tools out there, only some people really know what they’re doing.

Technical Terms

Alignment – How you keep things from looking like a mess and frustrating people. Breaking alignment can be used to purposefully call out elements (which can be frustrating, but if it’s done with purpose then it’s okay).

Balance – This one probably belongs in the Subjective Terms section below because it could be categorized as a feeling. But as a technical term, a design that is balanced is the opposite of busy.

Bleed – A term for space that runs beyond the edge of a piece. Mostly relevant in printing, it ensures a design runs far enough into its rightful space and gets cropped as planned.

Contrast – A design principle referring to the way elements like colors, typography, and shapes interact with each other. When two elements have high contrast, it draws in the eye of the beholder. Juxtaposing visual elements is essentially creating purposeful high contrast.

DPI – Dots Per Inch. Typically used in printing, it’s another way of saying how many pixels make up each inch of an image.

High-res – High resolution tends to refer to photos required for print projects, but not always. Typically, 72 DPI is screen resolution, 150 DPI is medium resolution, and 240-300 DPI is high resolution when referring to raster images.

Information hierarchy – The visual mechanism a designer uses for presenting information to a reader—a supporting thought, a new chapter, or a different topic. Using consistent formatting of typography and graphic flows will make your piece easier to consume and more likely to be read.

Margins – This is where our friend white space lives (among other places). They make reading easier and are often a major part of a design’s alignment. Not being mindful of margins is one of the biggest mistakes made by the untrained—having thin or no margins on a design is the fastest way to say “this was made by a second grader”.

Print ready – Until a design is ready for print, the file is generally routed using low resolution artwork and colors that may not be specified correctly. But before handing off to the printer, it needs to be “print ready”, including a lot of technical specifications around color, associated photography, typography file prep, folding and cutting instructions, and whatnot. Some designers use the term “print ready pdf” while others call it a “final final pdf.”

Proportion – Another comparative design principle. Refers to the visual weight (not just size) of an element in a design. For example, an element with high contrast can carry more visual weight than another element even if it’s not larger in size.

Raster – An art file (gif, png, jpg) where the image—usually a photo—is made up of lots and lots of tiny squares known as pixels. A pixel is a fixed size, and the quality of an image is defined by the number of pixels contained in one inch. The more pixels, the higher the quality. Try to scale up a raster image and you get a “pixely” image. Not good. When you need to scale, go with a Vector image.

Tracking pixel/tag – A string of code added to a webpage used to track interaction with a piece of digital marketing (display ad, email, webpage). A tag tracks time, browser, device, operating system, and IP address. When someone asks if your web person can add a tracking tag to your webpage, don’t panic. It’s not hard.

UTM code – A really silly acronym for a very technical term. Just know that UTM is descriptor added to a URL so you can track where users are coming from using Google Analytics.

Vector – An art file (ai, eps) where the image—like a logo—is made up of shapes using mathematical equations. They can be scaled up and down without losing quality.

White space – Most non-designers aren’t comfortable with white space. They see space that’s not filled with words or photography or logos as wasted space. But it’s often the only thing that separates a good design from a bad one. If you take only one thing away from this blog, please let it be this: Proper use of white space (which isn’t necessarily white) is what good design is all about.

Subjective terms

Approach – A creative application of the strategy behind the project. For example, we want to sell more wombat cream in Arizona. We know that wombats in sunny climates want to be seen as wealthy wombats. So, our creative approach will be to show our wombat models near pools and fancy golf courses.

Intelligent creative – The opposite of one-size-fits-all marketing. Intelligent creative is built to get the attention of a specific target audience by speaking to their values and motivators. See wombat example above under Approach.

Make it pop – A phrased used by someone who is underwhelmed or feels like the emphasis of a design is in the wrong place and can’t explain why. Using technical terms could help you explain your feelings in a more meaningful way. Because, like it or not, when you say “make it pop” to a designer, your credibility will plummet.

Visual language – The arsenal of shapes, patterns, and colors that a designer chooses and assembles to represent an emotion, project, or brand.

This list is not exhaustive, but it’s a good start and should make communicating with the finicky designers in your life a little easier.

About the Author: Danette Knickmeier

Danette Knickmeier
The number of hats Danette wears at the agency rivals the number of toppings you can put on a pizza. Now seven years into her second residency at cat&tonic, she enjoys putting her many talents to use, including (but not limited to) account services, project management, strategic planning, copy and content writing, general operations, and snack ordering. Her wicked planning skills and natural ability to keep projects on task—without annoying all parties involved—make her our go-to, get-it-done person. Danette’s first stint at [c&t] lasted six years before she got the itch to try on a few larger agencies for size. She grew professionally and made several life-long friends in those days, but she missed the small agency vibe and was eagerly welcomed back by her life-long [c&t] friends.
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