When to Use Spot Colors Versus Process Colors (Or Both)

How design and budget affect color printing

color guide
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For most color print projects you'll use either spot colors or process colors (such as CMYK). To make the best decision about which to use, there are several factors to consider. Budget, printing method, and the specific design elements used in the layout each play a role in the decision. Generally, 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. Here we consider when each option makes the most sense.

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).
  • The publication needs a color that cannot be accurately reproduced with CMYK inks, such as precise color matching of a corporate typeface or logo color.
  • You're printing a specific color over multiple pages that require page-to-page consistency.
  • You're printing over a large area, such as a poster (spot color inks may provide more even coverage).
  • You need more vibrant colors or more exact color matching than what CMYK inks produce.
  • The project requires special effects such as metallic or fluorescent spot inks.

Explore the symbolism of color and colors that go together. Whether you're using spot colors or process color printing, the colors you use are a form of non-verbal communication.

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.
  • You need more than two spot colors (check with your printer; process color printing can be less expensive than using three or more spot colors).

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When to Use Process and Spot Colors Together

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

  • A publication with full-color photographs must incorporate specific spot colors that can't be created with CMYK inks (such as a logo color or a metallic ink).​
  • You 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).
  • You 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 are 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).

Discover how to get good color printing from your desktop printer or a commercial printing process.

When to Use 6 Color or 8 Color Process Printing

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