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Color Accuracy in Commercial Printing
Achieving Predictable Color Results on a Printing Press

colorful Macaw

Print buyers, graphic designers and printing companies alike all want and expect accurate color reproduction of their printing projects. Achieving predictable color results, however, first requires a basic understanding of the fundamentals that effect color in the commercial printing industry.

There are three primary concepts to understand and apply that greatly affect the final color outcome in commercial printing:
1. The color space of your document
2. types of inks selected in your document
3. your computer monitor
's color accuracy

Select the Right Color Space
CMYK is the Color Gamma for Commercial Printing

color gamma

A Color Space is a “range of colors” for a particular device (such as a monitor, scanner, camera, etc.). The color space is the maximum extreme edge of all of the colors of the light spectrum that it is able to to capture, display or reproduce. Colors a device cannot reproduce are said to be “out of gamut” for that particular piece of equipment. Accurate color in commercial printing uses the CMYK Color Space.

Professional design programs have different setup options for color depending on what the design will be used for. The 2 most common are:
CMYK Color Space — for printing your document out to a substrate (paper, plastic, vinyl, etc.), and
RGB Color Space —for viewing the document on a device, such as a computer, phone or television (website, PowerPoint presentations, etc.).

It is critically important that you select CMYK Color if you intend to print the document (rather than just viewing the document on a device). In doing so, you are restricting the color options in your previewing of the document to only those colors that can be accurately printed out in full color printing (CMYK). After all, why display a color that is “impossible to print”?

NOTE: many of the non-professional design software programs only allow an RGB color space. In this circumstance, avoid super-bright and saturated colors in your design. Ask your commercial printer for a proof in CMYK to accurately see how your colors will print.

Want to be able to print any color? Would be nice, but that is not possible. Even the human eye can't perceive all of the colors of the entire spectrum of light, as some are invisible to the naked eye. Similarly, no device, from your monitor or scanner to a printing press, is capable of capturing and accurately reproducing the full range of all of the possible colors that are visible to the human eye.

» »   Read more about Color Space and Color Gamma

Select the Right Ink Colors
Ink Colors Used in Commercial Printing

Pantone ink colors

There are two main types of printing inks used in commercial printing:
Process Color, which are CMYK inks, are used in “full color printing”
Pantone Solid Inks, also known as “Spot Color”, are typically used for 1 and 2 color printing

Most advertising materials are printed in Full Color Printing, also known as process color, using CMYK inks. When you are designing a project to print in full color, it is important to choose colors with CMYK values to make sure your desired colors can be accurately printed in process color.

If you choose RGB, HEX, Pantone Solid Colors, or any other color space, you may be choosing colors that are out of gamut. If they are outside of the CMYK gamut they can not be accurately printed, and will thus default to the closest color that is within gamut. That leaves you “guessing” at what your color will look like. If you stick with CMYK you will KNOW what the color should look like.

CMYK inks

What Does CMYK Stand For?

Process color printing (also known as 4-color printing or full color printing) is the mixing of four ink colors during the printing process to produce a nearly unlimited number of colors.
The four process color inks are: Cyan (C), Magenta (M), Yellow (Y) and Black (K - "Key").

CMYK halftone

CMYK printing involves the use of halftones and screens to distribute the images, illustrations and text into a pattern of dots onto the printing plates which are then transferred to the paper. The tiny dots of each primary color are printed in a pattern so small that they are perceived as a continuous tone image. The smaller the dots, the better your image will look (dpi).

Pantone Solid Colors are typically used when printing a 1 or 2-color project. Pantone Solid Colors should be avoided when you are printing in full color, as some of those ink colors can be accurately printed in CMYK, and others not. This is ONE of the reasons why there are printing presses with MORE than 4 ink wells.
» »   Read more about ink colors

Is your Monitor Lying to You?
Color Accuracy and Monitor Calibration

computer monitor color

Nearly all printing in modern times starts on a computer monitor:
1)   The graphic design was created on one, and
2)   The final artwork is typically viewed and approved on a computer monitor.

The question is, how accurately is it displaying the colors in the first place?

Nearly everyone has noticed when shopping for a TV that there are often huge differences in the color displayed from one set to another. In like manor, monitor color will vary substantially from one model to the next. Although a quality monitor is certainly important, any monitor can be calibrated for improved accuracy.
» »   Read more about Monitor Calibration

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