STUFF Designers say you might not completely understand

Michael Streubert
Michael StreubertSenior Art Director

Over the years I’ve noticed most people in our industry know how to “speak designer.” With that said there are a handful of terms or issues that routinely come up that seem to cause confusion. Here’s a short list of some of the most common offenders and how they’re defined by a designer.


Distressed: Essentially type that looks worn – think of old painted letters on the side of a 50 year old exterior wall.

Typeface: A specific style of alphanumeric characters. E.g. Times New Roman, Courier New, Helvetica. Remember, not the same as a font.

Font: In historical context, this was the specific size, weight, and style of a typeface. In modern printing, it has become a digital file which stores that information. You can call a typeface a font, but some designers may want to roll their eyes.

Kerning: The space between individual letters. It might seem trivial, but bad kerning can be a distraction, while exceedingly bad kerning can… well, just google “bad kerning.”

Leading: The space between lines of text. Often described as “tight” (lines close together) or “loose”(more negative space between lines). In the web-world though, this is commonly called “Line Height.”


CMYK: Four ink colors used in standard, color printing (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Key or Black). Also known as “4color.”

Pantone: A company best known for its Pantone Matching System (PMS), a proprietary color space used in printing. See also “Spot Color”.

RGB: The three primary colors used in the digital color spectrum, created by superimposing and layering these three beams of light; (R)ed, (G)reen, and (B)lue at varying intensities. In combination they create the millions of colors we see on screens everywhere.

Spot Color: This is a special, pre-mixed color, most often referenced according to Pantone’s Matching System (PMS). For absolute consistency, it is applied as an individual ink, not a four color mix.  

4color or 4c: This is a standard printing job. Printers use a combination of 4 colors- Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Key/Black (CYMK). This designation is implying the job isn’t Black & White only (1-color), Duo Tone (2-Color, black + spot/pantone color). Some brands might require a specific “brand color” as designated by a pantone value. In such a case that could be referred to as a 5color job or 4 + 1.


Dimensions: Always provide sizes “width” followed by “height”. 8.5x11 would be a standard letter size. A 4x6 postcard is going to be vertical. A 6x4 would be horizontal. For some inexplicable reason all outdoor specs are backwards—it’s infuriating.

Native/Layered/Working Files: This typically refers to the file a piece of artwork was built in using Photoshop, Illustrator, Indesign, etc.

Packaged Files: Many professional design programs save space and processing power by not embedding image assets into the file. Instead they are linked, usually from a file folder, and shown as a preview while designing. Requesting a packaged file would include all these external assets (images and fonts).

Signatures/Spreads: Printer sheets are double sided and folded in half, so one sheet equals four individual pages. For this reason, multipage, bound documents must be in increments of four pages.

Resolution – Print: DPI (dots per inch) commonly refers to the density of tiny dots created by a printer- typically between 72 (newsprint) and 300 (high resolution photographs). If you didn’t know printers create images by printing very tiny dots, now you do. The more dots per inch, the higher the resolution. Pretty much 150 and up is indiscernible to the naked eye without getting uncomfortably close or using a magnifying glass.

Resolution – Screen: PPI (pixels per inch). Like DPI, PPI gives a rough idea of resolution quality, where higher density results in higher resolution. But unlike DPI, pixels per inch is a fixed number determined by the screen—you can’t force more pixels. In the digital design space, a designer needs only pixel dimensions, requesting a specific PPI is irrelevant as the screen will force the artwork into its specific resolution.
Similarly, requesting artwork at a specific pixel size, e.g. 1200x400 at 300dpi, isn’t possible. DPI is only used for printing, and screens will ignore that value.


JPG: A compressed, unlayered image file. JPGs do not support transparency and any transparent pixels will be converted to white. While typically small, high resolution jpgs can have exceptional high fidelity—therefore, JPG does not inherently mean low quality. They are, however, uneditable in the same way a painting would be.

PNG: In practical terms, PNGs share the same features as a JPG- although their compression is better suited for graphics and text than photographs. One of the biggest benefits of PNG is their able to maintain transparency. PNGs are the ideal file type for compressed logo files that might sit on a non-white field.

Powerpoint: A maligned and tortured program reserved only for designers sent to the 9th level of hell.

Vector Artwork: These are files that store the lines, shapes and colors that make up an image as mathematical formulae. This allows unlimited size scaling of the artwork, with no loss of quality. These file types are most commonly designated by the extension .ai or .eps (both generated by Adobe Illustrator), or .svg for the web. These are the ideal file types for logo files as they are layered, editable, and infinitely scalable.

Let us know if there are any other terms you’ve always been a little confused by, and were afraid to ask without getting the ‘ol art director eyeroll or designer snark. 

Also, here are a handful of related blog entries from some of other graphic designers regarding their methods and insights:

“How To Get the Most Out of Your Graphic Designer”

“Logo Design - Development Best Practices”

“How to Tame Your Font Library - Make Finding Typefaces Less of a Nightmare”

"Kick some .ASEs: Delivering Thorough Assets to Build a Better Brand"