When to Use Spot Colors or Process Colors or Both

How Design and Budget Affect Color Printing

color guide
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For most color print projects you will use either spot colors or process colors (such as CMYK). Budget plays a large role in the decision as well as the printing method and the specific design elements used in the layout. In general, a couple of spot colors cost less than 4-color or process color printing but when you use full-color photos, process colors may be your only option. There are also some situations that call for both process colors and spot colors in the same print job.

When to Use Spot Colors (Such as PMS Colors)

  • The publication has no full-color photographs and uses only one or two colors (including one spot color plus black).
  • Publication needs a color that cannot be accurately reproduced with CMYK inks, such as precise color matching of a corporate or logo color.
  • Printing a specific color over multiple pages that require a page to page color consistency.
  • Printing over a large area, such as a poster (spot color inks may provide more even coverage).
  • Need more vibrant colors or more exacting color matching than what CMYK inks produce.
  • The project requires special effects such as metallic or fluorescent spot inks.

When to Use Process Colors (CMYK)

  • The publication uses full-color photographs.
  • The publication includes multi-color graphics that would require many colors of ink to reproduce with spot colors.
  • Needs more than two spot colors (check with your printer; process color printing can be less expensive than using three, four, or more spot colors).

When to Use Process and Spot Colors Together

CMYK can produce many colors but not every possible color. Many publications are printed using a ​fifth color.

  • Publication with full-color photographs must also incorporate specific spot colors that cannot be created with CMYK inks (such as logo color or a metallic ink).​
  • Need to enhance or increase the intensity of (bump up) a specific process color by adding a spot color ink to it (a 5th plate for the spot color used in this manner is called a bump plate or touch plate).
  • Need to produce a full-color book or brochure but in different language versions (variable printing). Everything but the variable text is printed using CMYK then some of the shells are printed using a black spot color for the text in one language, other shells printed in another language, etc.
  • Portions of a full-color publication are coated with a clear varnish (the varnish is specified as a spot color).

When to Use 6 Color or 8 Color Process Printing

  • For clearer, more vibrant, photo-realistic colors than can be achieved with 4-color (CMYK) printing alone.
  • To get more pure violets, greens, and oranges than CMYK alone.
  • Almost 90% of PANTONE spot colors can be closely simulated with 6C/8C high fidelity printing (as compared to 50% with CMYK alone) so it can be useful if you need multiple specific colors along with photos.

More on Color in Desktop Publishing, Graphic Design, and Web Design