I asked a question here on GD after which I decided to read a book.

As a non-native English speaker, there are a lot of new terms for me to learn, and it seems that I might have used the wrong term image in my question Do we perceive images in text reading order. The term graphic, diagram or drawing would probably suit better there, because I only wanted an answer for that kind of stuff (still not 100% which one to pick).

This brings me to my question: what is the relationship between these words?

  • graphic
  • image
  • picture
  • design
  • drawing
  • photo(graphy)
  • painting
  • sketch
  • diagram
  • render
  • illustration
  • figure
  • shape

I have already tried to translate the words in my native language (German), but now that I have so many terms I'm even confused for the German terms.

I want to know:

  • which ones are pure synonyms?
  • which one is a superset of which ones?
  • what is the different between those words?
  • which term is similar to which one?
  • which word is never related to another?

Please stick to the 80/20 rule: do not consider strange situations such as a photography of a painting where the painting shows a diagram. There are enough combinations to explain I would say (even so many that this could become closed as too broad).

  • 3
    This is probably better suited for english.se
    – DA01
    Jun 4, 2014 at 21:35
  • 1
    German does have translations and distinctions for these words though. Ein Foto und eine Skizze sind doch anders? So I suppose it's not a language issue but rather a definition issue.
    – Hanna
    Jun 4, 2014 at 21:45
  • 2
    @Johannes: yes, there are translations and you picked an obvious one to compare. How about Bild (image) and Bild (picture) - is there a difference? If you look up picture on dict.leo.org it translates into almost anything. Sketch could not only translate to Skizze but also to Entwurf and Entwurf can also mean design. Jun 4, 2014 at 22:21
  • Right, but those would be contextually based, as they often are in English. I'm not disagreeing with the validity of the question, I think it's good to ask, as it is difficult to understand the nuances between them by definition.
    – Hanna
    Jun 4, 2014 at 22:34
  • "do not consider strange situations such as a photography of a painting where the painting shows a diagram" it sounds to me that you are quite clear on the meanings of those words, at least. Some of these are not ambiguous at all. I suggest you shorten your list to the ones that are indeed giving you trouble.
    – Octopus
    Apr 27, 2017 at 17:45

2 Answers 2


Graphics = Picture = Image: They can contain any or all of the other elements.

Illustration = Drawing. All sketches are illustrations, not all illustrations are sketches: Anything that involves the use of lines to create graphics falls into this category. Analog would be pencil, charcoal, ink, etc... While digitally this would be using paint brush, pencil, or vectors (pen tool in most programs). A sketch is typically an incomplete version or study. A finished drawing or finished illustration would not be considered a sketch.

Photography: An image created by light falling on a light-sensitive surface.

Painting: An image created with... paints.

Diagram: A subset of illustration/drawing that represents information, typically more scientific/data based such as charts, graphs, and flowcharts

Render: The use of shading, lights, and darks to create depth on a 2D surface. This could be rendering with colored pencils or with digital rendering software

Figure: Generally only used in books or references and can be somewhat arbitrary to the author, editor, or publisher. Typically though it would be something closer to a Diagram.

Shape: This is another special one. Its anything. It makes up all of the above and the parts of the above. To get more detailed would really involve its own question because it depends on proximity, color, how far away the eye is, is it a healthy eye, how defined of an edge exists, and lots of psychology.

Design: Completely different and has been discussed at length in What is the difference between a designer and an artist?

  • Nit picky additions: you can paint digitally, a rendering can be painted, a figure can refer to an object in a painting. And they call can be considered designs. (Just to keep things interesting...)
    – DA01
    Jun 4, 2014 at 22:31
  • 1
    @da01 I considered putting figure on its own like shape and design because of the broader definition but decided to keep it narrowly focused
    – Ryan
    Jun 4, 2014 at 23:36

which ones are pure synonyms?

They can all be synonyms of each other depending on context.

which one is a superset of which ones? what is the different between those words?

You could clump them into two groups: specific and generic.

Generic terms:

graphic image picture design drawing illustration figure shape

Specific terms:

photo painting sketch diagram render

The generic terms could apply to any of the specific terms.

which term is similar to which one? which word is never related to another?

Depending on context, they can all be similar/related to each other.

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