You can’t get there from here
The majority of commercial printing is done in CMYK; however, there are limitations to the colors that CMYK can reproduce. That’s where spot colors come in. They use unique ink formulas to open up the world of color in offset printing, so you can hit a specific color or use specialty inks such as metallics.
How it works
In typical offset printing, a job is separated into 4 colors: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black (CMYK). The combination of those 4 colors can be used to produce most colors, and are used for reproducing color photography. Each color has a separate plate on the press. A press that is designed to handle just CMYK would be 4-color press.
When you use a spot color, another plate is created, and a special mix of ink corresponding to your spot color is used on that plate. If this is running on a 5 or 6 color press, then it can all be done in just one pass. If running on a press that can only do 4 or fewer colors at once, it would require additional passes through the press. In either case, there is additional work of setup, printing, and clean up involved, so there is usually an additional cost.
When to use
Adding a spot color will often cost a bit more to print, so why would you do it? There are some circumstances where spot color is justified:
- CMYK doesn’t cut it – Some colors cannot be achieved with CMYK, especially some vibrant and intense reds, greens, blues and oranges. Spot colors take the frustration out of trying to hit a specific color on CMYK.
- Specialty Colors – Specialty inks such as metallic or fluorescent can only be done as a spot color.
- Critical color – If a specific color is a significant part of your brand, spot colors will ensure that they look just right every time they go on press.
- Consistency – Many companies use spot color to maintain consistency across all of their marketing collateral design, such as brochures and stationery.
Things to know
- Offset only – Spot colors are only available using offset printing, so they cannot be used on small jobs that will be printed on a digital press.
- Coated vs. Uncoated Paper – It’s important to know that the same color of ink will look different on coated and uncoated papers. When choosing a color, use the appropriate color guide (see below).
There are several different classification systems for defining unique spot colors. Of those, the Pantone Matching System (PMS) is the most commonly used in the United States and Europe. It is a proprietary color space developed in 1963, and is used in a variety of industries, primarily printing, though sometimes in the manufacture of colored paint, fabric, and plastics. The Pantone system also allows for many ‘special’ colors to be produced such as metallics and fluorescents. The other systems for color will not be addressed here, since they are less known, or are for specific uses (i.e. newspapers, packaging).
Choosing a specific color
The Pantone Matching System has numerous printed color guides that allow a graphic designer to choose from thousands of discrete colors. The guides show the colors printed on coated and uncoated papers, and provide a reference name and/or number that is used in the artwork file to tell the printer exactly which formula to use for that plate.
With all of the options that spot colors offer, it’s good to know you can find the color you need, when you need it. Your graphic designer or printer can help you determine if your project would benefit from using spot colors.