Thursday, January 31, 2008

Spot Color

Spot color is a relatively simple concept, but it does, however, cause designers problems in that colors are often selected from a built-in color palette with little regard for what kind of printing will be utilized.

A spot color, as opposed to a process color, is one ink. The ink in your pen that is red, or the one that is blue, or the one that is black, would be an example of a spot color. A pre-mixed ink to make one solid color. Whereas a process color is made of different percentages of 4 colors (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) as the ink is laid down by the press.

One simple rule to follow is to be clear about how your design will be produced. In other words, know whether you're creating a piece as a 4-color (process/CMYK) print job, or as a spot color job. With this knowledge in mind only select or create colors in your color palette that are appropriate for the print method that will be used.

I often get projects from designers that are to be produced in 4-color with spot colors specified in willy-nilly fashion. Not the end of the world, but when the file is separated to process, those spot colors will be converted automatically to process colors. Generally this comes off OK, but it is in some sense a crapshoot. Especially since the gamut for spot colors is much larger than that of process. So, you may not end up with that particular shade of red that you had in mind. I rarely if ever see process colors spec'd in a spot color job as most designers tend to chose their colors from the built-in pantone palette. Doing so would elicit a call from your client or printer asking how you would like to rectify the situation. And would expose your lack of knowledge or sloppiness...never good for business.

So, once you've decided that you're working on a spot color job, carefully choose your colors from a pantone (Pantone Matching System or PMS) swatch book. DO NOT RELY ON YOUR MONITOR! (more on this in later posts). Then go to your pantone palette and choose the appropriate color. Don't worry if it's not the exact shade of green that you wanted. Your monitor will lie to you, your swatches will not. Besides, once you spec the color, the printer will create a print plate for just that spot color and any ink can then be put down on the paper. How it looks in your file, or the exact number, etc., means little in the final product. What matters is the color that you spec to the client and the printer. You may have sent your file to the printer and the client then calls and says that they've decided against that green and now want blue. No worries, go back to the printer and tell them you want to use a different ink than the one spec'd. Easy. No need to generate new artwork. This however is not the case with process, which would require a new file.

A rant about C and U.
I get spec's in all the time such as PMS 472U or PMS 135C. The minute I see this I know that the person communicating the spec has a fundamental lack of knowledge about spot colors. So, what does that C or U actually mean? Well, most know of course that it stands for coated or uncoated (paper stock). But, most don't know that it is completely useless to the print process. Why have it at all then? These letters are tacked onto the end in your file simply so you can chose a color that will look as close as possible to the printed color on your screen. That's it! The printer knows what kind of stock is spec'd and then they put down ink that is called for PMS 472U and PMS 472C are EXACTLY the same ink. The silly little C's and U's are there in an attempt to make things look prettier for you on your screen. Personally I wish Adobe would abandon the whole thing altogether as it just complicates the topic that much further.

The bottom line is (and you'll find this an ongoing theme throughout my entire blog), know everything in your file intimately, spec your colors with a clear idea of where you're going, and never ever rely on your monitor.

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