When Spot Colors Save Dollars

Spot colors provide critical color matches

An intricate arrangement of multi colored lines and dots
Ralf Hiemisch / Getty Images

If you are designing for the web or if your print project will print in CMYK four-color process inks, you may not care what a spot color is, but if your print design has a logo color that must be matched exactly or if your print project requires only one or two ink colors, then you need to understand spot colors and when to use them.

Get Acquainted With Spot Colors

Spot colors are standardized colors that can be purchased from a color-matching company or that can be mixed by a commercial printer according to formulations provided by the color-matching company.

In the U.S., the dominant color-matching company is Pantone, which uses the Pantone Matching System. Printers can order inks identified by Pantone's PMS numbers directly from Pantone, or they can mix the same color ink using color formulations and color-accurate printed samples obtained from Pantone.

When Color Match Counts

If your client has a logo that is red and black, and he tells you the red is PMS 032 and it must be that color on all his printed pieces, you should use that specific number color in your digital files and notify the commercial printer you want that specific spot color used. You should not convert the color to a CMYK mix because the color can shift. Your client might refuse to accept the printed product if the red is the wrong shade.

You can also combine one or more spot colors with color photos, which require CYMK inks, making your print job a five- or six-color print job.

This inflates the print price but delivers the exact color the client demands.


When Dollars Count

When the color match isn't critical and your print job only needs to print in one or two ink colors, you can save on printing costs by using spot colors. A one- or two-color print job requires less labor at all levels than the same job printed in CMYK—less prepress time, fewer plates, fewer press washups and less paper for setup—all of which add up to a lower price.

When and How to Use Spot Colors

If your design has no color photos and only a couple of colors of ink, you can use spot colors—just specify them in your digital files.

You can use tints of a spot color just like you can of black. That way, 20 percent of a color, 50 percent of the same color and 100 percent of the color give the appearance that you are using more colors than you are without the expense of additional inks.

Spot colors include specialty inks such as metallic and fluorescent inks, which cannot be mixed in the CMYK process. When you design with these specialty inks, you must use spot color ink.

Color Matching Companies

The Pantone Matching System consists of more than 1,000 colors of ink, many of which cannot be matched in CMYK printing.

There are different brands of spot color inks in addition to those from Pantone. You'll likely see them available in your software, but unless you confirm with your printing company that it uses the other color companies, stick with PMS colors. Other spot color systems include Toyo, DIC, and RAL. Toyo and DIC are common in Japan and RAL are popular in Europe.