Become a BETTER Designer | Design Terminology for Better Communication

Yasmin Curren
13 min readDec 22, 2022
Watch a video of this article on YouTube

If you’re a Designer, or at least aspiring to be one, then you’ve probably already heard that communication skills are a necessity! What’s the point in being able to dream up thousands of design mechanics, systems and new ‘cool things’ if you can’t communicate these concepts to the rest of your team or even to a publisher? Designers can often just seem like a bunch of people with ‘ideas’, but really the best Designers are the ones who can directly and succinctly explain how those ‘ideas’ can improve an experience (whether that be a game, website, building, etc). This could be by addressing a current problem or enhancing something that already exists within it. The clearest way to do this is to use the correct terminology to convey your message.

Almost four years ago I started working as a Game Designer full-time where I was able to learn a lot from just working with other, more experienced, Designers within a AAA game studio. During this time I started to collate a list to stick next to my desk of the most useful terminology that has helped me communicate my design ideas, improvements or even my concerns. This list is what I’d like to share with you today. So, without further ado, I present to you my list of

✨Super Useful Design Terminology✨

There are specific Design terminology that is dependent on the type of Designer that you are (product design, web design, game design, etc), but these terms are the ones that I have found to be most universal, and therefore have been the most useful for me to learn throughout my Game Design career.

1. Affordances

Affordances are, simply put, what the object can do. However, this is only revealed by the user taking the appropriate possible actions. Therefore it is the Designers job to make sure that these affordances are clear to the user.

Perceived Affordances are the users understanding of an object and its uses. If the Designer has done their job correctly then the perceived affordances will align with the true affordances of the object.

False Affordances are perceived affordances which do not align with the objects true affordances, by either having a use that was not expected by the user or simply not having any function at all.

Let’s use a Door as an example of Affordances (Ah the door, the not so simplest of all designs):
Affordance: A door can be opened or closed.
Perceived Affordance: A user sees that the door has a handle and perceives that the door will be opening toward them when they pull this handle.
False Affordance: A user sees that there is a shape of a key hole below the handle and perceives that the door can be locked. However this is not the case and is just a visual asset on the door handle itself as the door has no locking capabilities which causes some confusion.

False Affordance: Door handle has lock hole but door does not lock

When Designing for games however there are innate affordances that players will expect that will not always align to the real world. For example, as a rule of thumb doors will be expected to always open away from a player to allow better ease of use.

2. Signifiers

Signifiers are the specific elements of an object which enhances its affordances; they show what affordance something has.

In our door example the signifier would be the handle of the door itself as it was this object that allowed the user to perceive which way the door would open and what action they were to take to open it. This is a visual signifier as it’s something that the user sees that then allows the user to perceive its affordances. More simple examples of signifiers would be a label on a jar or signs on a building or road letting you know where to go.

In games we still utilise this real world knowledge so that the objects seem familiar to the player, however its signifiers are modified for the digital platform. For instance a door will often still have a door handle visible to signify which side of the door will open, but the player will need another signifier to show them how to open the door. Usually this will be done in the form of an on screen button prompt.

3. Telegraph

In game design the term telegraph can often be used alongside the term signify, as it does give the user information about the object, however it’s used moreso to communicate advance notice of some change to the object rather than being intrinsic to that object. The term Telegraph comes from sports, where it is used in martial arts to reveal what kind of attack will come next, and even strategy games like chess where players try to conceal any communication that might telegraph their next move to their opponent. (I also find myself doing this when playing Battleships…)

An example of this in video games would be wind-up animations to Telegraph incoming attacks, to give players time to learn from and react to.

This boss raises his arms to telegraph an incoming powerful projectile (Game: Cult of the Lamb)

4. Feedback

Feedback is when the object responds to a user to let them know what action they just took. A lot of the time the feedback can just be the action happening. So, if a user turns the handle of a door and takes the action of pulling or pushing then the feedback of that door would be to open if they took the correct action, or to stay closed if they did not. However, if it remains closed then how does this feedback inform to the user why it did not open?

In a video game players have less sensory information afforded to them to know this just from this feedback (e.g. they can’t feel whether the door has some give or see whether the lock is visible through a door crack) so the Designers need to use a mix of audio and visuals to portray this feedback. A locked door might have a distinct noise, or the players character might directly say out loud that they’re unable to open it.

Positive Feedback: Encourages more of the same action (e.g. the door opens when interacted with)
Negative Feedback: Is the opposite of what the user expects, but gives them information about this (e.g. the door produces metal sparks when it’s shot at but does not show visible signs of damage to let the user know that they successfully shot at it but it is indestructible)

Note both the interaction button and a UI overlay gives the player feedback (Game: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt)

5. Feedback Loops

An extension of feedback are feedback loops which are used to enhance or buffer changes that occur in a system. There are actually feedback loops all around you, happening right now. When you turn on the heating you start a new feedback loop, while the radiator pumps out heat this is a positive feedback loop yet, as the room gets warmer the thermostat shuts the heat down, this would be a negative feedback loop. Both negative and positive feedback loops are needed to work together to create balance.

In games feedback loops are used to enhance a players gameplay experience by having loops of gameplay systems that are affected by the player, either negatively or positively.

Positive Feedback Loops: Reinforce the current player experience to allow players to continue either their successes or failures.
⭐Famous Example⭐: Call of Duty kill streak system which gives perks to players who are successful to enhance that success (and therefore, enhance the failures of others)

Negative Feedback Loops: Balance the current player experience to help players who are struggling and hinder ones who are successful.
⭐Famous Example⭐: The loot distribution in Mario Kart is weighted so that the best items will go those who are further back in the race, giving them more chances to gain a Blue Shell to specifically hinder the player in the lead.

Used well, feedback loops keep the game feeling fresh and adaptive as well as allowing games to be more accessible to players of different skill levels as the game can adapt its gameplay systems to their playstyle, rewarding skilled players and helping those who are struggling.

6. Constraint

Constraints are rules that are applied throughout the user experience that either enables or restraints the user. Constraints are important to allow the user to understand the limits of the user experience and therefore set their expectations, because of this these rules must also stay consistent.

In a video game these constraints can manifest in many ways, the most prominent example I can think of is fall damage. As a player myself I always like to test the constraints of how far my player can fall without triggering the death screen. Although, as a rule of thumb, it’s good to keep constraints consistent to keep in line with player expectations, they can sometimes be affected by in-game items such as upgrades or buffs.

Designers themselves must understand their own constraints when it comes to decision-making. Constraints are design limitations that the Designer must work within the confines of, however these boundaries can often aid the creative process as it gives Designers criteria that must be met and adapted to. An obvious example of Design constraints is money. How can you make your super cool awesome idea within a limited budget?

7. Constant

A constant is a rule that never changes throughout the user experience. Unlike a constraint, a constant is called as such because it never changes. This is because constants are an always-present factor that cannot be changed. Gravity for example, is a constant which affects all of us every day. We cannot change it, but instead we work within the boundaries of it.

In a game a constant can be the inability to see beyond a screen, the need for certain inputs or even the ability of the player themselves.

8. States

Objects and systems are made up of a sequence of possible states. When designing for an object it’s important that designers understand what these states will be.

For example, a door might have 3 States: Open, Closed and Locked.

9. Conditions

Conditions are rules which are influenced by user actions that meet certain criteria to affect these states. For example the condition for a door to be in an Open state is that it must be interacted with by the user, however if the door is in its Locked state then the conditions for the door to open will change so that same interaction will not open the door.

Death and damage are common examples of conditions in games. For example a Player will have a number representing their Health that gets reduced every time they get Damaged. The Conditions for most games would be that if the Health reached 0 or less after receiving Damage then the player would transition to their Dead state.

Note the right Players health bar has fully depleted which triggered the K.O. screen (Game: TEKKEN)

10. Uniformity

Uniformity is used to describe the need for something to be consistent across all types of this object. This helps to make the object type easily identifiable to the user. You see uniformity in a lot of branding, so that a consumer can easily recognise where an object is from, but it is also used in design to help users build up perceived affordances. If all doors used uniformity to show a panel as a signifier for when it needs to be pushed and a handle as a signifier for when it needs to be pulled then there would be much less confusion around what action needs to be taken by the user to open a door as this understanding would become universal.

Games use uniformity to help the player understand the game world and rules. For example, God of War has runes displayed upon any piece of wall that can be traversed and Resident Evil uses the colour yellow to represent when certain crates can be broken and can contain loot.

Note the yellow runes that run across the ledge that the player climbs (Game: God of War)

11. Commonality

Commonality is quite similar to uniformity but it is a term mostly used during development to explain the sharing features or attributes throughout different objects. Where uniformity explains the visual elements being shared, commonality explains the technical elements being shared.

For example, within video games weapons can look quite different, but the most efficient way of developing them is to make sure that all weapons have commonality in their set up for all of their common features such as reloading, bullet projectiles, melee, damage types. To build your games like this you might also want to research component based design.

12. Flow

The term flow is used when talking about the intended user experience that a user should have when interacting with the object, from start to finish. A door’s flow is for the user to interact with the door in a signified way that allows it to be open, then the user can walk through to the other side and it is up to the user whether or not to close the door behind them.

In video games a doors design flow is a lot more intricate as there are many factors to think about such as if the door can be locked or unlocked, which way it should open and whether the game has NPCs who can interact with it. Here’s an example of a simple door Design Flow that I created for my game, Perfection:

My flow chart for the doors in indie game Perfection

As you can see, writing out a flow graph can truly help you figure out the Flow of your own designs and catch any edge cases!

13. Edge case

An edge case is a problem or situation that occurs in a very specific scenario. It is usually a mild problem that won’t be a widespread issue, but it’s always good to try and anticipate where an edge case could be during the design phase. For example, an edge case of an audio speaker could be that at high volumes it distorts the audio, therefore lessening the quality. Some edge cases, such as this one, aren’t much of an issue but others can be worth addressing such as specific system crashes.

14. Exploit

Exploits are potential, or sometimes deliberate, flaws in a design that allows users a chance to reach their desired outcome without having to follow the design flow. For example shaking a vending machine to dislodge the yummy goodies within! The user still gains some snacks by the end but they missed the step of having to put money in the machine first (although, I swear this only works in the movies…)

In game design the determination of what is considered an exploit differs, but from my own experience I have noticed many designers create systems with exploits in mind. For example, by creating elements in the world that can both hinder a player and, if used correctly, help them. A simple example could be an exploding barrel which players need to be wary of as it could damage them, however they could also explode parts of the environment nearby it, exploiting the area to the players advantage while also dealing damage to any enemies nearby.

Example of red barrel (Game: Warhammer 40,000 Darktide)

On the other spectrum of game design exploits are speed runners, which are notorious for their exploitation skills. These players use glitches and bugs in the game, for example holes in the collision, to win the game in the quickest way possible.

15. Salience

Salience is an elegant word that describes a part of an objects visual design that is particularly notable. If an element seems to garner the most attention and jumps out from its environment then it is salient, driving users to pay attention to it.

In game design, especially Level Design, it’s useful to think about this in terms of where you need to guide the player. Using interesting lighting or a notable environmental object will instantly draw player attention to that location.

Note how the lighting and interesting image draws your eye to the poster and surrounding desk, making it salient (Game: Bioshock)

16. Discoverability

Discoverability is the degree of ease with which the user can find all the elements and features of a new system when they first encounter it.

The success of a design largely depends on the amount of discovery it has. It is no use creating a clever object, system or feature if the user cannot discover how to use it for themselves. Keeping the above terms in mind will also help you design thoroughly to have the best chance of achieving high discoverability as well as creating a thorough design.

✨1 Up Design Communication✨

Congratulations for reaching this far! Now you are free to go and tell everyone about your wonderful Designs with your newfound communication skills!

Disclaimer: As with most of the human language, these terms can be used slightly differently by each Designer. Some Designers have preferred terms to others depending on their own experiences and specialities. However, these are the most commonly used terms that I have both heard and read about and as such are widely understood.

I hope this was useful for you and if you like another article on the specific terminology for Game Design then please do let me know! 🎮 Wishing you the best of luck in all your future projects ❤

If you’d like to check out more of my work or what I’m up to then you can follow me on YouTube, Twitch, Twitter or Instagram @YagmanX . I also have a free horror game ‘Perfection’ on and a music EP ‘Sweater’ available on all major music streaming platforms 😊



Yasmin Curren

Driven by Narrative, Inspired by Technology. YouTuber, Game Lover, Maker of silly creations with Code and Film!