CMYK v’s Spot-Colour Printing?

When you plan and prepare for a major print job, one of the major decisions you’ll need to make concerns the type of printing process you use. There are two main processes available – spot-colour printing and four-colour process printing. In this post, we’ll take a closer look at each and offer insight into which approach is best suited to specific jobs.  

Understanding Four-Colour Process Printing

When undertaking true full-colour printing, four-colour process printing is the most common method used. In this set-up, the printer is equipped with four separate supplies of ink. The most common four-colour process printing method is abbreviated as CMYK printing. The letters stand for each of the four colours used in the process:

  • C – Cyan
  • M – Magenta
  • Y – Yellow
  • K – Black

The last abbreviation is, admittedly, a bit misleading. Presumably, the first people to codify this printing process were concerned that some might mistake ‘B’ for blue, so they opted to use the last letter instead.  

In CMYK printing, all of the colours printed are created from combinations of those four base colours. The colours are actually created from fine coloured dots on the page. Look at a newspaper or even a magazine through a magnifying glass, and you’ll clearly see those coloured dots. The finer they are, the more difficult it is to see them – but they’re there nonetheless.

How Are Spot Colours Used in the Printing Process?

The other major approach to colour printing involves spot colours. In this case, precise spot colours are mixed ahead of time according to a standardised recipe. These colours are then applied evenly to printing stock. There are no dots blending together to create the impression of a colour. Instead, the precise colour desired is applied directly to the page.

The most common type of spot colour printing involves the Pantone Matching System. Pantone officially defines and categorises colours according to a numbering system. Each colour that they have defined is precise and consistent. It will be exactly the same shade and hue regardless of where it’s printed.

The limitation here is that each colour must be mixed ahead of time. If you are using full-colour printing across multiple pages, then it simply wouldn’t make sense to define Pantone colours for every single shade that appears in the job. But for print jobs with relatively little variation in colour, spot colours can be more affordable and sharper-looking on the page.

Choosing between Spot Colours and Four-Colour Printing

Spot colours almost always look best. In fact, there are some shades that four-colour printing simply can’t render as crisply or brightly as is possible in spot colour printing. Furthermore, major CMYK print jobs can end up looking faded or even banded.

With this in mind, spot colours are best used when you are working with precise brand colours or a logo, in which case the colour needs to be crisp, consistent and unblemished. This makes sense for business cards, collateral and some basic signage. But for lengthier, more complex jobs (such as a catalogue or multi-page brochure), you are probably better off choosing four-colour printing.

If you’re not sure which printing method is best for your project, all you have to do is give us a call on 08 9277 4918 to let us know a bit more about the details of your print job. We can easily advise you of which approach is going to best serve you.