Decoding Design

Decoding Design: The Parts of the Process

Decoding Design: The Parts of the Process

You’re looking over a proposal for your design project. The designer has it all spelled out, but you’re not sure what it all actually means. What is the difference between a concept and a revision? What can you actually expect them to provide at the end of the project? Today I’m decoding some of the lingo involved in the design process to help make this a little clearer.


an idea for the direction that a project can go.
The designer takes in all of the info about the project, your target market and branding, any budget or production constraints, and comes up with a few concepts that meet all of the requirements, each in their own way. Depending on the type of project, you may be shown anywhere from 2 to 5 or more concepts. These are usually accompanied by a brief statement explaining how the concept addresses all of the points the project is meant to hit. It is customary to choose a single concept (direction) to pursue for the rest of the design process.


an updated concept based on requested edits.
As much as every designer would love to get a concept 100% perfect out of the gate, usually there are a few edits that need to happen. Perhaps text has changed, or a different photo is needed, or that shade of blue just isn’t quite right. When a client views a concept and provides feedback, the designer will condense that down into edits that need to (or can be) made, and present a revised concept. Professional designers will designate how many rounds of revisions are included in the project fee.

Draft / Proof

a rough or unfinished piece meant to show a concept or revision fully enough for presentation and feedback, without yet being finalized for production or handover.
This can take the form of a low-res file digitally (usually a .pdf or other easily viewable file) or an untrimmed sheet from the printing press if you are further along in the process. All concepts and revisions are usually shown in this manner, before a design is finalized.


the actual file(s) that the designer delivers at the end of the project.
What format those files will take should be spelled out and agreed to in the contract beforehand. Generally designers do not hand over their layered/editable Adobe files, but only work-ready files tailor-made for the use designed for, i.e. files that can be uploaded to the web or given to the printer immediately. For example, if a designer is creating images for social media for you, they will delivered flat, finished image files (.jpg or .png) rather than a Photoshop file. The only standard exception to this is for logo design, when the vector Illustrator file should be provided. If you need access to the Adobe file for your project or a template you can update and use on your own, that should be discussed with your designer up front, before work begins.

Did that clear up the parts of the design process for you? What else could use decoding?


Decoding Design: Print Lingo

Having covered color profiles and website lingo (catch the full series here), I will now move on to the wonderful world of print. If you’ve ever had to deal with getting something professionally printed, and are not yourself a printer or designer, you’ve probably been befuddled by terms like DPI, and possibly worried about mention of bleeds and stocks and crops. Not to worry; taking something to print is, usually, a painless and bloodless process if you’re properly prepared.


Dots Per Inch, or PPI: Pixels Per Inch. If you have ever heard the term ‘resolution’ in regards to image quality, this is what it meant. DPI refers to the dot density of an image when it is reproduced as a real physical entity, i.e. printed onto paper or displayed on a screen. In other words, dots per inch is literally a measurement of how many pixels or dots of ink fit in a line 1 inch long. This makes a difference, because generally the higher the DPI, the crisper and better-quality a printed image will be, and the larger you can print an image without losing quality or having it become pixelated. Standard resolution for online or web images is 72 DPI, wheras the minimum standard for printed images is 300 DPI. You can discover the resolution of an image by opening it in a program like Photoshop and bringing up the Image Size window (it will list DPI), or you can ask your designer if an image is of the required resolution for your project.

Bleeds and Crops

Have you ever printed something small out on a letter-sized piece of paper, but then when you went to cut it out the scissors couldn’t quite get close enough and you end up with that plain white paper smidgeon of a border around your piece? Well, bleeds and crops are the professional printing world’s way of eliminating that unsightly problem. Professional printers use large format printers,  so unless your project is also pretty large, there will be some trimming to remove the excess plain paper and get your piece to it’s actual finished size. To eliminate the possibility of that excess white border, designers set up print pieces to include a bleed – generally 1/8″ to 1/2″ of extra color or picture information that extends beyond the edges of a piece. This bleed ensures that even if the trim line isn’t exactly perfect, you just have a continuation of your design instead of that annoying border of plain paper. A crop mark is a designation that tells a printer where the actual piece ends and the bleed begins – i.e. where they should crop/trim the paper at.


Traditional printing presses run pieces through the press one ink color at a time. This means something printed in CMYK (4-color process) runs through a press 4 different times, once for each color. Registration is the method printers use to make sure the paper (and hence the printed colors) line up correctly for each color run through the press. Printers place a special mark at the edge of the press sheet and use that for alignment.


In the printing world, stock refers to paper stock. Choosing a specific paper stock for your print project sounds like it would be as simple as saying ‘plain white paper’, but it’s actually a bit more complicated than that. Paper types vary greatly by material they’re made from, finish, weight, and color. Even with plain white paper, you have the options of a cool white, or warm white, or bright white; a matte finish or gloss finish or satin finish; vellum paper, recycled paper, fiber paper, textured paper; thin lightweight paper or thicker cardstock paper. The choices can be overwhelming, but choosing the right paper to print your piece on can really enhance the finished product. Your designer or your printer can look through paper sample books with you until you find one that you like.

What are some print terms that have baffled you? I’ll do my best to de-mystify them.

Decoding Design: Web Lingo

Last time on Decoding Design, I decoded the basic terminology regarding color profiles. This time, I’m going to decode the world of building a website. This is a conversation I have to have fairly often with new clients, so I developed a way to explain it in non-programming terms.

Your website is basically your home on the web, right? So let’s go with that metaphor. There are 5 main components and terms you’ve probably heard regarding having a home on the web: hosting, URL, website, FTP, and mail server.


Hosting is basically the house or apartment. When you buy a hosting account, you are buying space on a server somewhere to store all of the stuff that will make up your website. Depending on how big or flashy your website is going to be, you may only need a small 5MB hosting plan with minimal features (your online efficiency apartment) or you may need a bigger, unlimited space account with all of the advanced programming languages and features enabled (your penthouse condominium or mansion). Naturally, the prices correlate with the size of the hosting account that you need, just like housing. Most hosting accounts need to be renewed annually, although you can buy up to 3 years of hosting at a time. Monthly or yearly payment plans are usually an option.


URL stands for Uniform Resource Locator, though no one calls it that. It looks like, and is also called a domain name. The URL or domain name is your website’s address, and is what people type into their web browser in order to visit your site. Think of it like a street address for a real house – it tells people where to find you, and is part of how they distinguish your house from another. The cool part is you get to pick your house (hosting) and attach whatever address (domain name) you want to it, as long as it’s not already taken. You will have to register your new address (otherwise you don’t really have a claim on it, or have it associated with you) and renew it yearly. Most hosting companies offer domain registration services as well, though you can do it through a separate company.


When people refer to a website, they’re usually referring to the content and possibly design of it, rather than which hosting plan or domain name you use. The meat of a website is all of the stuff on it – text, pictures or other media, how the pages are organized, how it looks, interactive features, etc. Think of it like all of the stuff in a house – how you designate which rooms are which, how you decide to decorate them, all of the furniture and knick-knacks you fill it with. That is what really makes it your home, your website. In programming terms, it’s all of the files (which are stored on the hosting account) used to create the website that people see when they come to your domain name.


FTP stands for File Transfer Protocol, but you’ll rarely heard it referred to as that. Your FTP server is basically like the security system on your web home – people have to know the correct code in order to get inside, and have access to all the stuff in the house. When they go to your domain name, they can look at your house and the stuff in it, but without FTP access they can’t change anything around or remove anything. This is what you or your website manager uses to upload or download things from your site, add new content, remove old content, move things to a new page, etc.

Mail server

The mail server is, funny enough, how your home on the web receives mail – in this case, email. The server usually is something like, and works like a post office. Each person in your house can set up an email address (*protected email*, *protected email*) and that is how the mail server distinguishes where to deliver the mail. It’s kind of like each person installing their own mailbox in front of the house – their address is still that house, but what comes before the @ symbol in the email address determines which mailbox the mail goes into. When setting up Outlook or another email client to retrieve the mail at your new web address, you will need to know both the incoming and outgoing mail server addresses. Again, this is usually, but your website manager can tell you for sure.

Does that help clear things up? Any other web terms that are fuzzy?

Decoding Design: Color Lingo

If you’ve ever had an in-depth conversation with a designer, you’ve probably been bombarded by letter combinations like CMYK, RGB, DPI, and odd terms like bleeds and spot colors. We designers throw these terms around all the time, maybe without realizing that not everyone lives and breathes these things like we do. This is the first post in a new series aimed at de-mystifying design lingo.

I’m going to start with decoding just a few basics in this article, namely the acronyms pertaining to color profiles. They are: CMYK, RGB, and PMS.


CMYK color modelCyan Magenta Yellow Key (black): also called process color or 4-color – CMYK is a subtractive color model, meaning that white (the paper color) is achieved by subtracting amounts of color, and black is a combination of all of the colors. This is the color setup used by all professional printers and your home printer, too. I like to call this the ink-based color setup, as that is the medium CMYK is generally in reference to. While certain computer programs (mainly in the design field) can handle the display of CMYK images, it is meant for printed pieces rather than digital formats. There are certain colors that CMYK inks can produce which are impossible to represent on a computer screen (see gamut image below).


RGB color modelRed Green Blue: in contrast to CMYK, RGB is an additive color model, meaning that white is produced by combining all colors and black is the lack of all color. This is the color setup that your computer monitor and TV use, as well as all web graphics and online images. I refer to this as the light-based color setup, as it is the setup used by all electronic devices that display color based on pixels made up of light. While home printers and digital presses can print pieces submitted in RGB, the color conversion will not be completely accurate. RGB is meant more for digital/electronic mediums than printed materials. There are certain colors that a computer monitor can display using RGB/light that are impossible to print using CMYK inks (see gamut image below).

color gamut


pantone color guidePantone Matching System: contrary to what popular usage of this acronym may imply, in the design world PMS has nothing to do with mood swings. The Pantone Matching System is a series of special, pre-mixed inks that can be used in place of or in addition to CMYK inks. Essentially, a PMS color (often called a spot color) is an ink mixed to a very specific formula based off of 13 base pigments – for this reason, many of the Pantone system’s colors cannot be reproduced exactly by CMYK. It’s like ordering a can of paint and using that to paint your wall, rather than buying 4 different colors of paint (CMYK) and mixing on the wall itself. It’s a much more precise color system, but also generally more expensive to run if you’re using more than one or two spot colors as each ink requires its own plate on the printing press. Pantones are great to use if you need a specialty ink, such as metallic or flourescent, or if the identity standard requires an exact color match every time even if different designers or different printers are handling the work. Pantone makes color swatch books that display how each ink prints on coated or uncoated paper. See the Pantone website.

I hope that helps clear up the difference between color setups!

Do you have a question about design that I could answer in this Decoding Design series? Let me know below!

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Amanda Guerassio

From freelance designer to studio owner, I've been a self-employed, independent graphic designer for over a decade. I love helping people find the right visual voice for their businesses and projects. Let's talk!