Understanding Color for Printing, Even With Your Office Printer

Color changes because color is light. What other colors are nearby change the color of the object being viewed. It’s important to understand this basic principal before continuing with your project. Why? Because seeing your beautiful logo in an white room with a 75 watt incandescent bulb is very different than seeing it an all green room with the same 75 watt incandescent bulb. 

Similarly, your logo or other projects will appear differently on bright white glossy paper than it will on an ivory matte paper. It will also look differently in print than it does on screen.

Maybe you’ve asked or heard someone ask these questions.

  • Why do designers keep asking me what the goal of the project is? 
  • Isn’t that being a bit nosy?
  • Do I have to think that far into the future?
  • Why do they have to know before working on a project what the end-use will be?
  • Why do they care if it is for a print, presentation, HDTV, web or email? 
  • Does it really matter what size I want it to be; can’t I just get the artwork and make it the size I want then?
  • What does any of this have to do with color?

Why do designers like to play 20 Questions?

We do love playing 20 Questions! There is method to our madness of questions. Basically, the more information we can get about a project in the beginning, the more efficiently we use our time and understand your needs. We sometimes can also predict and suggest future needs with more information.

Getting back to the questions of medium (print, web, etc.), your designer is asking these  because of color and resolution. We will be discussing color for printing in this post. In another post we discuss color and your monitors, tablets, and phones followed by helpful information about resolution and physical and virtual size. In a future post, we'll discuss physical size and resolution.

See Spot Print!


CMYK (a.k.a. process color, subtractive color): Professional printing and many in-house office color printers create a myriad of colors by using many teeny-tiny dots of cyan, magenta, yellow, and key (or black) to achieve each color and color variation in the artwork or photograph. (Wikipedia has some examples of the dot pattern and how the colors combine to achieve many different colors in an image.) We refer to these four colors as CMYK. We call the mixing of these colors to create other colors as “process” color (see also subtractive color in Design Basics by David Lauer and Stephen Pentak). Using all four of these colors is called a “four-color process”.

Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key (or black) = CMYK

Spot color: Sometimes, a client needs a very specific color and needs it to be consistent throughout the project and all other materials. We call in a “spot” color–it’s spot-on every time.

To guarantee that the proper color can easily translate from designer to printer to the client, a company called PANTONE created universal color combinations and color communication tools. (Designers always have a PANTONE swatchbook handy.) When a number for a color is given from a PANTONE collection, the designer assigns that color to a logo, design elements and/or type. Then, the designer may use the PANTONE swatchbook to create a CMYK match as well as RGB and HEX values (web).

For example, The University of Texas has an unmistakable burnt orange. Because branding is so important and color plays a key role in that, The University of Texas has specified PANTONE 159 (see their primary colors as part of brand identity). A match for this spot color can be achieved through process colors (CMYK), but process colors can only be a close match and may not provide the consistency of color desired that using the “cleaner,” premixed spot colors offer. Designers can also refer to one of the PANTONE Matching Systems (PMS) to find the process color values to achieve a good match if necessary. There are some colors that just cannot be achieved by the four color process. If your project calls for a metallic or neon color, for example, you’ll have to go with a spot color.

“CMYK (or four color) + spot” means that the project calls for mixing cyan, magenta and black for achieving most of the color(s) on a page/sheet as well as specified spot color(s). You’ll need to specify how many spots to get an accurate printing quote.

When calling a printer for a bid, say something like this, “I have a four color job plus 2 spots, 186 and 287.” The printer then refers to her/his PANTONE swatchbooks and see that PANTONE 186 is a vibrant red and 287 is a medium-toned blue.

Sometimes, projects will only be two colors–black (or K) plus a spot. But, with printing advancements in the last ten years and pricing differences among 1, 2, 3, and 4 color jobs narrowing, one-color or one-color plus spot is becoming less common. Four color plus spot color(s) has become more common and more affordable.

To discuss the differences any further would be digging into the weeds, and you’re likely here because you merely want an overview, a general understanding. Generally speaking, your project type, project goals, business goals, your designer and your budget are the biggest players in making the call for using the spot color and/or 1-4 process colors.

Note: Sometimes, a CMYK “match” will appear “dull” or darker than the spot color on printed materials–at best, it’s an approximation of color values–not an exact match. It may render very differently on your monitor, tablet or phone. You’ll want to keep this in mind as well when working with your designer. S/he may suggest going with the spot and spending that added cost (usually a minor one on large print runs) in order to maintain the integrity of the logo and brand. Your designer will make this suggestion based on the type of project, the project goals and 

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21 Apr 2016

By Rhonda Negard