Spot Colors and their Importance to your Branding

Gamut Color Wheel


Laura Stopa, Graphic Designer
01.27.2016

Many small companies or businesses that started without a creative agency or designer may not be using spot colors, which is an essential element for brand consistency. Spot colors are premixed solid inks that provide consistent results when printing. They also have standard formulas to be viewed across different types of media. For example, Pantone has a complete color matching system that allows companies to keep the colors in their business materials consistent. To break this down in a way that is easier to understand, you’ll need to know about the different ways artwork is used and the variation of colors needed for each media. Offset printing, digital printing, and on-screen artwork are some of the most common ways business materials end up in the consumers hands.

Offset printing is done with separate plates for each color. In a typical offset printing project, there are four plates for the following colors: cyan, magenta, yellow and black (CMYK). This is because these four colors are printed one at a time to build up to all the colors you are normally used to seeing in a full color print. If you are printing in black and white, you will only need one plate: black. When using spot colors, each one requires a separate plate. For example, if you have a full color project with additional 2 spot colors, you will need 6 plates: cyan, magenta, yellow, black, spot color 1 and spot color 2. Offset printing is usually recommended for bigger projects or when a high volume of materials is needed. When one project requires spot colors for a portion, but not on others, it’s possible that the colors will be inconsistent. One brochure could look more cyan vs another brochure you had printed looking more magenta for example. Spot colors help avoid this issue.

Digital printing is similar to using your laser or inkjet printer. There are different digital presses these days that offer either laser or inkjet capabilities. This is often a better choice for smaller size/volume projects, because it is less expensive (less setup involved because plates do not need to be created). One of the biggest downfalls to digital printing however, is the quality and color inconsistency. Spot colors can only be simulated in digital prints, leaving more room for color error as well, though many commercial printers are able to match the spot color very closely.

On-screen artwork for example, websites, emails, etc. is different than traditional printing in that the way colors are used is different. We mentioned CMYK earlier as being used in both offset and digital printing. On-screen artwork is typically displayed in red, green, blue (RGB). RGB light is produced on the monitor and the three colors mix to create all of the colors shown onscreen. All three colors mixed together create white. On-screen artwork also leaves room for inconsistency because every monitor is calibrated differently. If you have a spot color predetermined, it will help reduce this issue, though it can never be avoided 100% of the time.

With the different ways printing and on-screen artwork is displayed, there needs to be some consistency in how your branding or logo presents in each environment. Spot colors help keep the colors as close as possible across multiple avenues. For example, the Pantone Matching System (PMS) has created a system with all the colors they offer with the full spot color breakdown (pre-mixed inks that follow a specific formula and are meant to be exactly the same no matter what print shop you use for offset printing), a conversion to CMYK (offset printing without spots or digital printing) as well as a conversion for RGB (on-screen). This system tells designers/printers what information to use when designing/printing to achieve the most accurate color and consistency possible. This is good for your brand so consumers do not see completely different shades of your color across all your business materials. There will be some color change between the different medias (offset, digital, and on-screen) as each one functions differently and cannot be reproduced on the other media. Another reason for this is the range of colors available to each media is different for each. CMYK has the smallest gamut range, followed by Pantone and then RGB.

KEY:
CMYK – Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black: Used in offset and digital printing to put color on the printing material.
RGB – Red, Green, Blue: Used in monitors and displays to produce light that creates the colors available.
PMS – Pantone Matching System: A system of predetermined colors that allows you more control over the consistency of the color in your business materials with formulas to convert to CMYK and RGB when necessary.

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