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Spot Colors: When Should I Use Them and More Importantly, When Should I Avoid Them?

As a graphic designer, a big part of your job is preparing a client’s publication for print. It might be your hundredth issue or it might be your first. Either way, Pantone colors play a strong role in print productivity. More than likely, proofs will go from your screen to another, then another, and maybe another, until it finally hits prepress and the hands of the press operators. That’s where my expertise lies. May I introduce to you a quick guide to keeping colors true from design to print.

Spot colors, or Pantone colors, are a collection of an array of colors often used for print design. They are intended for use when the use of process colors, or CMYK, do not achieve the desired color closely enough.

What is “close enough”?

It’s estimated that only a third of spot colors are achievable using a CMYK screen match. The other two-thirds are off to various degrees, enough to be of major concern to a professional designer trying to achieve optimal results.

Of course, 100 percent of the colors in the Pantone palette are achievable when a pressman mixes up the ink using the mixing guide that is a part of the Pantone system. This will add cost to a project because of the ink mix factor, extra plates, and potentially extra make-ready time on press. But, if it has to be a specific match that cannot be achieved with process colors alone, this is the way a printer will recommend you go.

When your print project is printing only in process colors (CYMK), you can use the Pantone color palette for the initial design but then convert the colors to process colors prior to exporting the file to a print-ready PDF. This way, you can see the color shift before sending the file to the printer. Otherwise, you may find out after costly proofs are made or, even worse, after the job is printed, that the colors don’t look the same as when it was spec’d.

There’s one last thing to be aware of: alternative color space. This is a relatively new gremlin that prepress operators have been dealing with. For instance, you are building a page and you spec a box and some accompanying text to be Pantone 485 and 148. Then, you import a logo picked up fro an old project that contains the same two Pantone colors. You think nothing can go wrong…but then you get your high-resolution proofs and notice a definite shift in colors between these two graphics.

What happened?

The box and text had an alternative color space of CMYK that clearly defines Adobe’s CMYK color blend. The logo that was imported was created and saved out of Illustrator, also an Adobe product, but its default alternative color space is LAB, which has nothing to do with ink on paper. In a nutshell, the prepress operator converted your Pantone colors, which are the same in name but not in characteristic.

The safest way to get repeatable, predictable results is to build and supply your files in a PDF format with any Pantone colors converted to process colors prior to output. If you have any questions or issues related to Pantone colors, give our prepress team at a call at (231) 946-3712.

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Article written by:

Ken Kingsley

Prepress Manager

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