Why spot colors are necessary

Published by | Thursday, September 12th, 2013
Why spot colors are necessary

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Why do we need spot colors? It’s because humans can see a wide range of colors—some say 10 million shades—but there’s a limit to what we can print in CMYK, the industry-standard combination of cyan, magenta, yellow and black inks. This is where spot colors – absolute colors generated by a specific ink – come in to fill the gaps.

CMYK has its limits
The diagram below represents the range of colors humans can see. You’ll notice that what we can see on a monitor, and what the CMYK offset printing process is capable of reproducing, is less than what spot colors (the “PANTONE gamut” in the diagram below) can achieve. Bright oranges and navy blues can be especially challenging.

Color Gamuts compared

Cyan is an excellent example of this, as it can’t be rendered faithfully on a monitor. The PANTONE gamut is the most comprehensive of the three. Note that although we’re using PANTONE as an example, there are other spot color systems available.

Add specialty colors
Certain types of finishes like metallics, fluorescents, and neons can only be achieved with a spot color. These can add texture and visual effects to your design and in some cases, such as metallics, these finishes can even improve your perception of the subject; as a result you’ll often see promotions for luxury items, cars, and jewelry incorporating metallic inks.

Maintain color uniformity
Often a design requires a large area of one color; using a single spot color will guarantee there is no variation in the hue.

Solve registration issues
We’re not seeing the registration issues we did in the past because the technology used in press controls has greatly improved. But registration problems can still arise with a four-color build—especially in tiny details. Since spot color is created with only one ink, images can’t go out of register.

Reduce your printing costs
In certain cases, traditional four-color printing is used on a job that could be accomplished with just two. In these cases simply going with two spot colors can mean a reduction in cost and complexity. It totally depends on the colors you choose because some, like fluorescents, are more expensive. Talk to your printer and price out the difference; you may be surprised.

Be sure to watch Claudia McCue’s course Print Production Essentials: Spot Colors and Varnish; she not only explains what they are and how best to use them, but she dives into Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, InDesign, and other creative applications and shows how to build documents correctly for printing. I also recommend her other courses: Print Production Fundamentals and Print Production Essentials: Embossing, Foil Stamping, and Die Cutting, only available on lynda.com. With more than 20 years of traditional and digital prepress production experience, Claudia is an exceptional guide to this complex and continually evolving industry.

Adobe, Illustrator, InDesign, and Photoshop are registered trademarks of Adobe Systems Incorporated in the United States and/or other countries. PANTONE® and other Pantone trademarks are the property of Pantone LLC.

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