January 2, 2013

The Client’s Guide to Printing Labels

The Client’s Guide to Printing Labels

You’ve got your label design locked in with your design team, and now it’s time to go to print. They have probably mentioned things like spot color, CMYK or even had you look at a Pantone color swatch.  Great! Now, all you have to do is communicate to your printer that you want a spot color or CMYK for your price quote. Wait, what?  This is where we see clients get confused.  There are times when we recommend a spot color, CMYK or a combination of both for our clients packaging or label designs.

Don’t worry; no one will judge you for not knowing the difference, But, before you make any major color processing decision that could potentially put your packaging design, marketing campaign or even livelihood in jeopardy, allow us to explain the basic differences between the two color models.

We’ve Seen This Happen More Than Once!

CMYK Explained

CMYK stands for cyan, magenta, yellow and key (for our discussion, this means black). These four colors are used in basic color photographic image reproductions. The colors are layered in tiny points in order to create the impression of a wide variety of colors — kind of like pointillism, where, for example, alternate dots of red and blue create the illusion of purple when viewed from a distance). When printing photographs or pictures with a multitude of colors, CMYK is the color model that will likely be used.

It’s important to note that CMYK will not necessarily reproduce what you see on your monitor. Most monitors display colors using RGB (red, green, blue) colors. I don’t want to get technical, but monitors essentially create colors in a completely different way using an RGB (red, green, blue) color scheme. What you see, is not necessarily what you’ll get.

Spot Colors Explained

Spot color is the use of pre-mixed colored inks in order to produce particular colors. Whereas with CMYK you’re limited to the colors reproducible with the four inks, spot coloring doesn’t have this limitation since it’s mixed beforehand to match the color you need. It also means the color will be the same, regardless of where you get it printed. This method is used to create an accurate and easily reproducible color for all printing applications.

So, should I use Spot color or CMYK?

The decision to use spot color or CMYK depends upon the application. If the design going to print uses one or two bold colors, spot colors might be the best (and most affordable) option, since the design colors will remain consistent through multiple printings, and will result in a crisp and bright visual effect. For single color printing, CMYK tends to result in an approximation of the desired color, rather than an exact replication. Although CMYK can produce a large spectrum of colors, there are colors that CMYK is incapable of reproducing precisely.

When printing full color photographs, CMYK (or six or eight color variations such as 6C Hexachrome or 8C Dark/Light, which add additional colors to the four color palate in order to produce sharper, more realistic color images) is the only feasible option, since spot coloring entire photographs is both practically and economically unrealistic.

CMYK can be used for single color printing, but remember — it will be an approximation of the desired color, and might not match the original intended shade in a accurate manner. The CMYK process also tends to have a blurry effect when used in a single blended color application, since the colors must be applied in four passes. This can lead to misregistration — a phenomenon that can cause the image to appear hazy. Spot color only requires one pass, which leaves a sharp and vivid result.

If the project is very large, such as a large poster, spot color inks may present better, more effective coverage than the CMYK process, which may result in discernible blurring.

Metallic or Fluorescent Colors

CMYK can’t produce colors that have a metallic, iridescent or fluorescent effect. If the design requires the use of metallic imaging, spot coloring is the only option.

Spot Color and CMYK Combination

For designs that incorporate photographic or multi-colored images with a bold, single-color design or font, combining spot color and CMYK is also an option. This results in packaging that’s consistent with existing prints. CMYK processing can also be enhanced by the use of one vivid spot color throughout the design. We do this often to keep the main brand color consistent.  If one of the color elements in a photograph or multi-colored picture is fluorescent or metallic, a spot color plate will have to be used in order to capture the proper coloration.

OK, so maybe this stuff can sometimes get a little dry, but if you expect great printing results, knowing if you need spot color or CMYK is vital. Of course, if you’re still not sure about it all, just ask your design team (hopefully that’s us) and they should be able to tell you what you need for your project. And if they can’t, maybe you should be the one getting a laugh or two at their expense … right before you fire them and find a new team.


by Kevin Smith
SmashBrand helps brands create, optimize, and launch successful products, services, and customer experiences. Our data-driven process is the key to accelerating sales and minimizing risks.

We use a strategic combination of market research, design, and consumer testing to solve complex brand problems more effectively, create differentiation, and forge more meaningful connections with customers.

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