CMYK Printing Challenges with Potential Solutions

CMYK Printing Challenges with Potential Solutions

This guide will teach you the very basics of spot colors. This includes:
  1. what is a spot color vs process color
  2. why we use spot colors
  3. how to check if spot colors are correctly assigned
  4. how to make a spot color from scratch

What are process colors?

In print, process colors are specific colors (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black) are used to create a wide variety of colors and images. 

For example, the image below in print would be separated into Cyan, Magenta, Black and Yellow.





The vast majority of color print uses process (CMYK) printing due to cost and speed. Here are the weaknesses of process color printing. The acronym BLIGS:
  1. B - background colors. it reveals more print defects if printing full background colors
  2. L - light colors. If we're printing light colors, we're only using a small percentage of each color which causes more color inconsistency and potential print defects.
  3. I - illegible text. It struggles with thin and light text and can look jagged.
  4. G - color gamut. it has a limited color gamut. 
  5. S - specific colors - it struggles hitting specific colors
  6. C - consistent color - we're not able to maintain color from run to run. This is why physical color matches are so critical.

    Color Gamut example from printernational.com

    Example of jagged text. 

Potential Solutions

There are a few things we do to help achieve color consistency and they're ranked in order of cost effectiviness and overalll effectiveness:
  1. Design with these challenges in mind. The best way to get the best product, in general, is to avoid solid areas of color to begin with. If you need to spruce up the design, add textures or other elements to distract the users eye. The more you have in the print, the more likely the client won't notice any potential print defects.
  2. provide a physical sample for us to color match and we'll store it. it's also important for us to put that in our order specifications so our press operators know what to look for
  3. build spot colors into the file and also give us a physical target.
  4. give us more time to print your project so our machines can be in top shape for the most difficult projects.
  5. buy pre-mixed inks. This is the most expensive way to achieve more color consistency for specific brand /art colors.

What are spot colors?


You may be more familiar with spot colors in the real world. Think about the paint that you use. Each bucket contains one ink. You typically buy the paint mixed to the perfect color before you buy it. You typically won't mix the colors below because it'd be hard to predict the final colors.


Spot colors can solve all 4 challenges of CMYK printing depending on the process. There are several ways to tackle certain aspects of cmyk challenges. Here we'll cover the different spot color options available and what it solves.

The different levels of spot color printing



Digital CMYK spot color mixing


Assign specific elements in a PDF as a spot color so we can individually control color. We digitally can assign specific CMYK values on our printing presses to get closer to the target colors.

This partially solves:
  1. S - specific colors:
    1. achieving closer matches to brand colors
    2. physical color matching specific colors especially when other colors/images are present.
This does not solve:
  1. B- solid background colors will still have potential print defects. some colors are tougher than others.
  2. L - light colors are still challenging since we're using low amounts of CMYK to create the color.
  3. I - small and thin fonts that are not black will still look jagged or illegible.
  4. G - this method does not increase the color gamut available for fluorescent colors. 
  5. C - CMYK will always have trouble printing perfectly consistent since a 1% change in any color can alter the visible color (especially for larger solid areas of ink)

Custom ink premixed to spot color

Here we buy pre-mixed ink and put it onto our presses to get even closer to the target color. This is especially true for colors outside the cmyk color gamut.

This can solve the B,L,I,G challenges of CMYK printing but has the following challenges:
  1. custom ink costs start at $500 JUST FOR THE INK.
  2. it takes a week for the ink to arrive
  3. it takes 2 hours to set up and clean up the ink which makes the project more expensive.
This does not completely solve C - consistent color since that is reliant on machine condition and operator skill. This does give us the best chance to achieve color consistency though. 

So when is it typically worth investing onto custom mixed ink?

  1. if you have a high budget and are looking to elevate a piece in an elegant way
  2. if the brand color is outside the cmyk color gamut and is critical to the brand.
  3. when printing small/thin/light text and it's critical for it to print in a specific color (not black ink)
  4. stationary that needs to feel elevated and printing higher quantities.
  5. large, 1 time projects. Setting up ink takes a lot of effort but for large projects, it's not a big deal.

Why us

In a file we can do something similar by giving special names so that our machines can store the color in a library. This gives us much more control but it does add an entire step to print the project.

Why use spot colors in printing?
Many reasons but at the basic level, it gives us more individual control of individual colors.