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An Introduction to Working With Spot Colors

Color has always been a popular topic on the web. We used to throw around terms like “web safe colors” a lot more than we do now simply because the computer displays back then weren’t as great as they are now. In place of these discussions, design blogs revert mostly to discussions of color theory and of course, free tools to help you build color palettes.

However, color was a hot topic long before the web was around. Once upon a time, my discussions about color revolved around printing presses and processes for applying ink. I’d wager there are plenty of readers out there who are either interested in learning about print or still work in print today so in this article I’ll teach you all about the magic of ink.

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4 Color Process Printing

Even if you know next to nothing about print, you can probably guess what four color process printing is: printing with CMYK. Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Key (Black), you’ve seen this this set of colors in every piece of graphics software you’ve ever used, though if you’re a web guy you probably stick with RGB (Red, Green and Blue), which relates more to light than ink.

It’s pretty hard to believe the first time your realize it, but most of the images that you see printed are made up of tiny CMYK dots (sort of like extreme Pointillism).


All of the crazy colors that you see in a full-color image result from the arrangement and mixing of these dots in conjunction with the color of the physical page.

You can see this process at work in any Photoshop document. Try opening a photo and clicking on the “Channels” palette. On a basic level, Photoshop is showing you how each color will be flooded onto the paper using different tones of gray to indicate the density of the coating.


Spot Colors

Why am I talking about process colors in an article about spot colors? The answer is that you have to first understand what spot colors aren’t, and what they aren’t is a mixture of the CMYK ink from a press like every other color that you see on a page.

Instead, the person running the press inserts a premixed, very specific color into the process. This is done for a variety of reasons. For example, you’ll frequently see “two-color” print jobs as a cheap alternative to full color. This process uses two spot colors together, often to create an impressive finished product that doesn’t give the feeling of a limited color palette.


Mixing CMYK and Spot Colors

When you work for larger companies, you don’t usually worry about printing in two colors to keep costs down. Instead, you often combine spot colors and CMYK into a single job. The logic behind this is that CMYK can be pretty unreliable. I learned the hard way that every commercial printer is different and the actual printed tones you get from CMKY can an do vary quite dramatically. Further, CMYK simply isn’t able to reproduce a lot of the things that you can achieve with spot colors.


One of the areas that you see this the most is brand colors. For instance, I used to work on ads for Uncle Ben’s rice that showed full color photographs of food cooked with Uncle Ben’s. However, next to those photographs the brand required you to place the Official Uncle Ben’s Orange. This was not any old orange but a coded spot color that was kept consistent across all of the brand’s communication. Several corporations do this specifically wherever their logo is shown.

When To Use Spot Colors

Let’s reiterate the above information in a more concise way to see when you should use spot colors. First, consider using them when you want to save money on a single or two-color run. Second, consider spot colors for more consistent coloring across print jobs, especially if you’re creating a brand and want to have it represented properly by every designer working with that brand.

There’s also the argument that, on large format jobs, it’s good to use spot colors for a better, more uniform coating of ink. Finally, you should use spot colors in special cases where you really can’t even get close to what you want with CMYK. This is especially true in two particularly fun types of ink: Metallics and Fluorescents.

Metallics and Fluorescents


Metallic and fluorescent inks are two very important secret weapons in the print designer’s arsenal, and they can be a lot of fun to work with. Both options are aimed at drawing extra attention to printed piece. Metallics obviously bring a sleek finish and shine not found in normal ink and fluorescents provide an impressive glowing quality (neon colors).

Neither of these can accurately be represented on screen so it’s just about impossible to show you with an image. All I can say is, you’ll know them when you see them! If you’ve got a Pantone color book lying around, look through it and see if you can spot any.

It’s easy to go overboard with metallics and/or fluorescents and create something that’s ultimately hideous, but when used with skill and reserve, the end results can be quite stunning. Just keep in mind that these options can be costly.

Using Spot Colors in InDesign and Illustrator

Now that you know more than you ever wanted to about spot colors, you might be wondering how to implement them into your design. In InDesign, you simply add a new color swatch and change the “Color Type” from CMYK or RGB to Spot.


From here you’ll get a ton of options, but PANTONE solid coated is a great place to start (the same colors come in coated, uncoated and matte versions). Once you create the swatch, hover over it to see the closest CMYK equivalent.

If you’re using Adobe Illustrator, click on the little dropdown menu in the top right of the Swatches palette and go to Open Swatches Library>Color Books. Here you’ll again see a bunch of options, including PANTONE solid coated, metallic coated and others.


In either application, you can use various tints of spot colors and even cleverly combine two spot colors in different ways. The thing is, you really have to be careful when exporting files that use spot colors in conjunction with transparency. Make sure your printer knows what he’s doing and that you read up on overprinting before you attempt this.

Working With On-Screen Fluorescents and Metallics

As I said above, fluorescent and metallics can really only effectively be produced on a printed page, your screen simply can’t do them justice. This can and does make client presentation quite difficult in the concept stage. Essentially, you send them a digital preview of their logo with dull colors and have to promise them that it will turn out bright and amazing.

There are a few ways around this. First, you should definitely own a PANTONE color book if you’re going to be working with spot colors. It’ll make the whole process a lot easier and give you a real sense of what the printed colors will look like. You can use this to show the client the actual final color (then spend 20 minutes explaining why computer monitors can’t show it).

The second thing you can do is slap a fake color on the preview you send to your client that more closely represents what they’ll see in the finished product. Illustrator has some settings that you can tweak to get a better preview, but with these special luminous colors I find that it’s best to simply build an RGB or CMYK color from scratch while looking at the printed sample from your color book for comparison. Again, this is only for preview purposes to help the client understand the crazy nature of the end result. Make sure you send the spot color version to the printer.


The information above is enough to make you hold your own in any job interview where a wise guy tries to see what you know about printing with spot colors. Though I hope at least a few of you out there share my love of print and will actually put this knowledge towards some practical use.

Leave a comment and let me know whether you like articles about print design or would prefer it if we stick to web design. Do you work in both web and print or just one area? We want to know!