Printing 101: What is Spot or Two-Color Printing?

Mixing pure inks to create a PMS color

Too often as printers, we assume everyone else understands the basics of print technology. Full color, spot color, process, digital, offset, thermography, letterpress, wide format… there are many paths to create a beautiful and effective printed product – decisions have to be made about which path is the best to take. The type of printing you need for your project should take into account many factors: budget, branding concerns, time constraints, intended use, and essentially the overall scope of your marketing plan. It becomes important that you have a printer you can communicate with freely and clearly. Your printer should be able to explain your options clearly. One basic topic in looking at the options for color printing is to understand what is meant by spot colors vs. full color.

Spot color refers to color generated in offset printing by a single ink. That ink could be a “pure” color or mixed according to a formula. Process, or 4-color printing, uses four spot colors to generate a full-color gamut: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black (CMYK). Some more advanced processes use six spot colors, adding Orange and Green to provide an even larger gamut. This is called hexachromatic process printing, or CMYKOG. At times, however, you may want to print using just one or two colors – for example let’s say blue and black. This is a classic example of two color printing.

Pantone is clearly the authority on color – a provider of color systems and leading technology for accurate communication of color. The Pantone Matching System has long been the standard for defining “spot colors.” If you have a blue lion in your logo, you want that lion to always appear in the same shade of blue – not sky blue on your letterhead, royal blue on an employee’s shirt and some shade of purple on the website. The PMS system is a way to standardize that color for the printing process, and your printer can show you swatches to select the PMS number that you can then define as an integral part of your brand. Also keep in mind that with these two colors, you can enhance the design of your piece by using “screens” or tints of those colors. 50% of black gives gray; a percentage of the PMS blue will provide varying shades as well. With a good design, a two-color printed piece can have much depth and style. (Pantone is a rich resource for all topics on color. Check out which color they chose Color of the Year for 2012.)

Any PMS color, printed from a single ink, can also be translated into the closest CMYK match. Your blue lion can be printed by the 4-color process method when you choose to create a full color piece. There will be a slight variation in the shade or hue of the blue, however – no PMS to CMYK conversion is exact. In most cases, the difference is tolerable or even unoticeable, but with a few colors the shift is more dramatic. The CMYK gamut can not replicate all colors visible to the human eye. Again, your printer can show you side-by-side swatches of what the PMS color will look like once converted to CMYK. Some brands are so specific about their color that they budget for 5-color offset print jobs where full color printing is needed, but they are willing to pay for another pass to get the PMS color of that lion exactly right every time.

Have the discussion with your printer to learn the process they are using to produce your print materials. They can explain about color gamuts, PMS color matches, and even color psychology and selection. You will also want to translate these colors for other uses such as your website or online marketing. There you will need web-safe color matches that seek to maintain an accurate match for your blue lion on the web as well. You will be in good hands with a printer who can help you with both the artistic, creative process and the technical concerns of production.

ImageSmith is a full-service print and marketing provider located in Arden, North Carolina. Contact us at ImageSmith for quotes on all your marketing projects, and more useful tips on how to create custom, effective, high impact marketing solutions.