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Process Color vs. Spot Color

written by: Michelle Strait•edited by: Daniel P. McGoldrick•updated: 6/21/2011

Understanding the differences between process color and spot color can save a desktop publisher not only from headaches, but from budget disasters.

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    Process Colors

    Understanding the difference between spot colors and process colors is important when transferring a color document from the computer screen to the printing press.

    Process colors consist of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black (CMYK). These four inks mix together to create colors in a document. For example, mixing 100 percent cyan with 100 percent yellow will result in a vivid green. Throwing in smaller amount of black ink will darken this green color. You might hear designers or printing professionals refer to this as full-color printing.

    If CMYK was the only option in town, the whole process would be simple enough. However, spot color complicates things in the desktop publisher’s color universe (there's also the difference between RGB and CMYK, which is best left to an article of its own).

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    Spot Color Printing

    Spot color uses customized inks that create specific results when applied to paper. Pantone is the most common spot color system currently in use in North America and Europe. Other systems, such as FOCOLTONE and TOYO, exist as well. When a specific Pantone color is used in a document, the print shop mixes it from a predetermined formula before applying it on the press.

    Why use spot color? Economics is a big reason. It allows a designer to strategically utilize color without the expense of running a job on a four-color press. Black and a chosen spot color (or even a spot color on its own) can add an element of eye-catching color without breaking the budget.

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    What's the Difference?

    In the world of desktop publishing, the differences between spot color and CMYK lead to a number of traps for the inexperienced designer.

    Corporate designers with big budgets often mix spot color with CMYK to achieve special effects. Metallic and fluorescent spot colors added to a CMYK mix are prime example. When this is done unintentionally, it's a recipe for disaster. If the job is a four color job and a Pantone is inadvertently inserted into the mix, one of two things will happen. The first option is that the printer will create a fifth plate, and then run the job through the press to add the additional Pantone color. The problem is that the process results in unexpected expenses. The second option is dropping the Pantone plate entirely, which will result in missing text or graphics in the printed product.

    On the other side of the spectrum, when a spot color job is created using CMYK instead, four plates are created to simulate the spot color, instead of a single plate. The result is budget headaches and printing delays.

    An added problem is that design software is picky in how it deals with the naming of spot colors. While you may think that Pantone 123C is the same as PANTONE 123c, the software might disagree. Differences in capitalization might indicate two different colors, which leads the printer to create two different plates (resulting in more budget overruns).

    All of which makes the difference between spot color and CMYK not just a design factor, but a dollars and cents factor as well. As you now understand, learning about the printing process is time well-spent.






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