What the hell is my Graphic Designer talking about? – A Graphic Design Primer, Part I

You know, as a Designer myself, I understand what it can be like to work with us. Sometimes working with a Designer can be an amazing, symbiotic experience with everyone on the same page, and with results that are dynamic and express your brand in a way you always imagined it could be. Other times, not so much. Sometimes it can be frustrating, irritating and confusing and make you want to just curl up into a ball and give up. Believe me, I know that some (but not all) Designers can be condescending, obnoxious know-it-alls who make the rest of the world feel, well, like stupid and un-enlightened neanderthals who just don’t “get it”. They sigh, they roll their eyes, they mumble under their breath, they type furiously into their iPhones or Androids which you suspect are just complaints about you (and lets face it, there are many blogs and online forums to complain about clients, just visit “clientsfromhell.net” to read all about it). And it’s all happening right in front of you – but then they smile and either talk down to you like you’re a child, or they rattle off a litany of industry jargon, which leaves you even more confused.

Frustrating, I know.

As someone from the inside, let me give you a little primer that can help you decipher at least some of the stuff they are saying, which can arm you next time you feel overwhelmed in your communications. To be fair to my fellow Designers, however, some of these are points of contention that can drive us batty when we’re trying to get projects out the door properly and quickly for you, so keep in mind it’s a two way street.

File Formats

For the sake of clarity, I’m going to start with two basic types of project – print and web. Right now I’m not talking video, audio or other multi-media here, let’s just start with the more simple stuff for now. In this primer, I’m going to refer to them as them “web ready” and “print ready”. Naturally, your project will determine what format your Designer will need your images in. These are the most common.

Web Ready (low resolution) = jpg, png, gif. The resolution is 72 dpi.

Print Ready (high resolution) = eps, tiff. The resolution is 300 dpi.

There are more formats but again, we’re just discussing the most common for now.

Notice print ready is a much higher number than the web ready format when it comes to resolution? Resolution can also affect physical dimension size. A 300 dpi image is larger both in resolution and physical size when used in print. Also, print ready images can be sized down to make them web ready, but not the other way around (unless you want blurry and pixellated results, which you don’t). So you can’t just grab any image off of Google and be able to print it (you shouldn’t be doing that anyway, but that’s semantics). More in depth: dpi stands for “dots per inch”. So a two inch image for the web is made up of 144 dots. The same two inch image for print is 600 dots. So it takes 600 dots to make something print ready vs. 144 dots to display something on screen. That’s why you can’t take that web image, even if it’s the same physical size, and expect it to print nice and sharp. Because if you try, what happens is that to compensate for the physical space, the dots will be enlarged – leaving you with a blurry, pixellated hot mess.

Speaking of grabbing images – please know that Designers can’t just strip images off of a Word document and use it in another project. (This happens to me quite often and other Designers will attest to this I’m sure). This is because Word embeds the image into the document itself instead of linking to it. Technically there are ways around this, but it yields crappy results. Just don’t do it. If you have the image, you can just send it to us, there’s no need to put it into a Word document first. If a Word document is all you have, then the honest truth is that you just don’t have the image. Either get a copy of the original from somewhere else or use another image altogether.

Vector vs. Raster Images

Ok so now this will sound confusing but bear with me. There are raster images (like photos in Photoshop, also known as bitmapped) and vector images (like drawings made in Illustrator). Raster images can’t be resized without some loss in quality but vector images can. Quick rule of thumb: most logos are vector, photos are raster. More in depth: I know a lot of people ask about PDF, but PDF is a finished format, meaning the native file was converted for final use. The native (or working) file was originally either a raster or vector format, or a page using raster or vectors or a combo of both. So, a PDF can be either raster based or vector based, and can be high resolution (print ready) or low resolution (web ready) so you can’t rely on that all the time to be re-used in the manner you want.

CMYK and PMS vs. RGB

Print images need to be in CMYK (or PMS), web images need to be in RGB. What’s the big deal? RGB will print crappy because that’s not a mixed ink formula format, which is what CMYK is. A Designer can change the formats easily, but more than likely will skew off the color somewhat, so just keep that in mind. More in depth: RGB works in light. It stands for Red, Green, Blue, which when mixed together on a monitor makes the other colors – this is considered “additive” because light is added from either the Green, Red or Blue channels to make all the other colors. All mixed together they make white. CMYK is “subtractive”. It works in inks. It stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black. These four inks are mixed together to make all the other colors. All mixed together they make Black. PMS stands for Pantone Matching System, which is a globally recognized color system to standardize color formulas. The inks are specially formulated so it’s the same across the board no matter how or where you print it. CYMK can vary somewhat and doesn’t offer the perfection PMS has with some colors (like oranges or purples which are always problematic when printing in CMYK), and is why big name brands have a chosen PMS color in their logo.

Warm vs. Cool vs. Neutral

Warm colors are reds, yellows, oranges, some browns and some purples. Cool colors are greens, blues, some browns and some purples. Warm colors create excitement, stimulation, and energy, whereas cool colors are relaxating, soothing, comforting. Neutrals are black, white, grey, some browns, some greens, some blues. These colors go with just about every other color in the spectrum and work great as anchors or backgrounds when you want the focus to be somewhere else.

Head spinning yet? Don’t worry, you’re not expected to know everything, which is why you hire us Designers to begin with. This is just a quick guide for those looking for a bit of explanation. If you have any specific question feel free to ask here and I’ll clarify the best I can. Look out for Part II coming soon!

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