GUEST POST by Jessie Ford Coots

Designer Lingo a guest post by Jessie Ford Coots for

Do you ever hear the terms serif, DPI, or vector and wonder what they all mean? Learning design dialect or communicating with a designer can sometimes make your head spin. I remember sitting in one of my first college lectures and trying to wrap my head around those same words. Fast forward nine years and now, design-ese is my second language.  

While I can only scratch the surface here, today I’m breaking down some basic and important terms, with the hopes that understanding these basic terms will make it easier to work with your designer.

1. Color Systems

Listed below are the different color models that designers use when formatting pieces for print and digital platforms.

RGB stands for red, green, and blue, which are the three additive primary colors. We use this system when designing something to be displayed digitally (think websites and social media graphics), but not to be printed.

CMYK stands for cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. This system is used in 4-color print processing, as these four are the standard inks for producing colors. When a file is sent to print, it must be set up in CMYK mode.

PMS: This The Pantone Matching System is a universal color matching system, also used in printing. Pantone colors are specific swatches that are already pre-mixed. So, if you use these colors in your design, they’ll print the same every time. This is important when you’re dealing with brand colors that need to be exact. A CMYK-based blue might print lighter or darker depending on the printer, but a Pantone-based blue should print the same from one printer to the next.

2. File formats

Here are the different file formats that you’ve probably come across when dealing with documents or images:

JPEG: This file can be printed (think photos) but should be used primarily for the web. It will be pixelated when you try to enlarge it too much, and it will always print with a white box background behind it if placed against anything other than white. Some quality is lost when it’s saved because it’s compressed.

PNG: This file type can be printed, but it should also be used more for web purposes. I prefer to use these over JPEGs, as they tend to have a little higher quality and transparent background (meaning you can place them against any background and they’ll translate clearly against it).

EPS: You’ve probably heard the word vector thrown around quite a bit. A designer loves to work with vector files because they’re scalable. You can literally enlarge them to fit any size or format in the world and they won’t lose quality. It’s the perfect file format for logos and illustrations. (Word of advice—when sending your logo to a designer, send them a vector file.) 

PDF: This is a universal file type that everyone knows and uses. High-res PDF files are standard for printing, but they can also be viewed digitally. They, too, will have a transparent background, when you’re using the PDF format of a logo.

3. Image resolution

Design files that get printed need to be at least 300 DPI (dots per inch), which is a high resolution. Photos that get used within a design that gets printed also need to be at least 300 DPI. The more dots in a printed inch, the higher the quality. A higher resolution simply means more detail, not necessarily a larger size.

DPI doesn’t translate to digital platforms in the same way since you’re electronically absorbing information via a laptop, phone, or tablet. When formatting an image for the web, the resolution can be slightly lower, like 72 DPI. Because they’re set to be smaller, they’ll load quicker. The next time that you send photos to your designer, send the original/edited high-resolution images from the photographer. I promise, your designer will love you and you’ll make their life so much easier. Images pulled off the web might not only be copyrighted, but they’ll have a low resolution and won’t enlarge well and will print pixelated.

If you don’t have professional images to work with from a photographer, use sites like or unsplash. These non-traditional and more artistic stock photos don’t cost anything or require attribution.

4. Know your fonts: serif, sans serif and script

A serif typeface has little lines (or strokes) added as embellishments at the ends of characters. Times New Roman is an example. These are good to use when reading large blocks of text (like you often see in books) and are great for professional and traditional purposes.

A sans serif typeface doesn’t have the serif strokes coming off its characters. Arial and Helvetica are common examples. This style of font has a cleaner, more modern look and feel.

Finally, a script typeface is, as you might guess, “script-y.” It’s meant to look like cursive handwriting, or on a fancier level, even calligraphy. It’s meant to not be overused, but is great for accenting pullout or highlighted words in a headline or quote. I like to use one to complement my pair of serif and sans serif fonts in a brand to give designs a personal, classy and sophisticated touch.

5. Kerning, leading and tracking, oh my!

Simply put, these are some of the different ways letters (and other characters) get formatted within a body of text.

Kerning: This refers to the space between a pair of letters (or characters).

Leading: This is the space between lines of type. The goal here is to adjust it so your lines are balanced and easy to read—not squeezed together too tightly or spaced apart too loosely.

Tracking: This is the overall space between letters in a body of text.

6. Color Wheeling 101

Colors play a huge role in design and branding because they can represent and evoke specific emotions and moods. In establishing a palette, some people use two key colors, while others use up to five or six. It’s just important all the colors work together well. Here are a few ways to describe them, depending on where they fall within the spectrum:

Complementary: Two colors that are directly opposite each other on the color wheel, but visually work as a team (blue and orange, for example).  

Analogous: These are groups of three colors next to each other on the color wheel, and because they’re similar, they look good together (blue, green and blue-green).

Warm colors: This might be a no-brainer, but warm colors are oranges, reds, and yellows, which are vivid and they evoke a sense of energy or urgency.

Cool colors: These include blues and greens and are usually peaceful and calming because they have a natural and fresh feel.

If you have any questions about the basics we just covered (or others we didn’t), leave a comment and I’ll do my best to answer!

Jessie Ford Coots is the owner and designer behind Untethered, a boutique graphic design studio in the Midwest that specializes in logo identity, branding, print advertising, stationery, and more. She enjoys giving new and old businesses creative makeovers, as well as partnering with select companies and non-profits to provide monthly design services. When she isn’t designing, she’s traveling around the U.S. showing her quarter horse in barrel racing events and happily adjusting to married life. She and her husband live outside of Louisville, Kentucky. To learn more about how she can creatively improve your business, download the free guide, “Branding 101: What it is, what it isn’t, and why you need it” at