Sttark's Guide to Printing: Process Color vs. Spot Color

Sttark's Guide to Printing: Process Color vs. Spot Color

Printed materials are vital for almost any business out there. Custom labels, product packaging, shipping materials, and more all need to be printed to keep your business running. Whether you’re using an at-home label printer or have upgraded to a professional label printer, you may have noticed color variations between print jobs. This could be due to the color process your printer uses – process color or spot color p In this post, we’re going to explain the different color printing processes that printers use and offer our recommendations on when to use each one.

Wait a Minute… Color is Color, Right?

Well, yes and no. You see, there are a few different methods of color printing. The two we’ll be discussing in this post are process color printing and spot color printing. Each process is very different from the other and can yield markedly different results. Knowing which color process your printer uses is very important when it comes to ordering printed materials.

What are Process Colors?

At Sttark, we use CMYK process printing to print your beautiful labels and cartons. Process colors are achieved by combining small dots of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (or key), which is why process colors are also referred to as CMYK colors. Digital printers use process color printing to achieve a wide range of colors. Process colors do not require unique plates for each color, meaning you can print colorful and intricate designs much cheaper than you would if your printer used spot colors.

Delta Variation

Process colors can vary in appearance based on a variety of factors, such as press calibration, substrate, and even lighting. To ensure they’re printing your colors correctly, printers use a tool called a spectrophotometer to measure the difference between a target color and the printed color. Industry standards dictate colors should differ no more than 5 ΔE (or Delta E) from each other, which is the unit of measurement that quantifies the difference between two colors.  However, even a small difference in ΔE between two colors can look like two completely unique shades.

When to Use Process Colors

Process printing is ideal for detailed and colorful designs. Photographs or photo-quality images also print much better with process colors than they do with spot colors. Process printing can also be efficient and cost-effective for small to medium print jobs. If color is vitally important to your branding, however, you may want to find a printer that uses spot colors. Process or CMYK printing is the best choice when color consistency is not your top priority.

Process vs Spot color printing

What are Spot Colors?

Spot colors are individually mixed inks laid down separately using unique plates. So, instead of combining small dots of CMYK to achieve your color, the ink is actually mixed first to your spot color specifications. Spot colors can be determined by hand mixing inks to match a physical sample or by following a specific color system.

Color Systems

One of the industry’s most common spot color systems is the Pantone® Matching System. Pantone® has created thousands of unique colors to help brands find the perfect shade to represent their company and products. Pantone® colors are achieved by mixing their 18 base inks which printers can do themselves, or they can buy specific cans of ink from Pantone® directly. Printers must be licensed by Pantone® to mix their colors and must submit swatches annually to ensure they are keeping up with Pantone® color standards.

When to Use Spot Colors

When color accuracy is imperative to your brand, you need to use spot colors. Because spot colors typically use pre-mixed inks, or adhere to a specific standard like the Pantone® Matching System, variations between colors are far less likely to occur than they are with process colors. Furthermore, you can print a wider spectrum of hues with spot colors, making it easier to dial in those brand colors and get them just right. Another reason to use spot colors is when you have one specific color that you use across all printed materials while the rest of your design is white or black; the resulting print is a lot cheaper and more color accurate than printing with process colors.

Properly Setting Up Your Files

Whether you choose a printer that uses spot colors or process colors, you need to set up your files properly so they print to your liking. Most printers should have guides available that instruct you how to set up files for their press, as well as a team that checks your files and makes any necessary adjustments before sending them off to print. Still, it’s important to set up your file using the correct color profile so you aren’t surprised when you receive the final product.

Screen vs. Print

An important note here is that the color on your screen does not accurately reflect the final, physical printed color. Computer screens use light to display color (RGB) while printed colors use ink. You’ll never be able to replicate an on-screen color with a physical color, but you can get quite close as long as you set your files up to be compatible with the color method you choose.

Building Files with Process Colors in Mind

Since process colors use CMYK, you’ll need to make sure your file is in CMYK color mode before sending it off to your printer. Seeing your file in CMYK color mode will more accurately reflect your final printed product than RGB will. You can easily change the color mode in both Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop.

To change your file to CMYK color mode, just follow the simple instructions shown in these videos:

How to Change Color Mode in Adobe Illustrator

How to Change Color Mode in Adobe Photoshop

Building Files with Spot Colors in Mind

To build your files using spot colors, the process is very similar to building a process color file. You will of course want to change the color mode to CMYK as that more accurately represents the final finished product. Then, add in your spot colors via the swatches panel in your program. Note that adding spot colors is simpler and typically yields better color separation in Adobe Illustrator than in Adobe Photoshop.

To add spot colors to your file, just follow the simple instructions shown in these videos:

How to Add Pantone Swatches in Adobe Illustrator

That’s a Wrap on Color

Process color printing and spot color printing can both be used effectively to create wonderful print materials for your business. Now, you should be able to identify the difference between the two and choose for yourself which printing method is right for you.  If you’ve decided that CMYK process printing is right for you, we’d love to help with all your label and carton printing needs. 

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