Being Print-Aware: 1. A question of colour

Most business people these days are IT-literate to a good level, but when it comes to designing your own artwork, there are quite a few well-disguised holes that even the best DIYer – and some designers! – can easily stumble into!

In the next few posts, I’ll be explaining some of the issues that face designers – and DIYers – when creating artwork for reproduction, whether on screen or in print.

Colour modes
‘Colour what?’, many non-designers will say (and some designers, too!). Colour modes are one of the prime candidates for creating errors, especially in print.

RGB, CMYK or Spot Colours?
The simplest way to summarise this right from the start is always use RGB for web design and always use CMYK when printing. But what does that mean and is it always true? And what are Spot Colours?

When designing for the web, there is one main format; RGB, or Red, Green and Blue. It is an ‘additive’ colour system. Put simply, it creates colours by combining different amounts of red, green and blue, in much the same way that your computer monitor or laptop does.

In a graphics program – such as Adobe Photoshop – you specify the strength of each of the 3 individual ‘channels’ of RGB colour using a numbering system from 0 to 255. Therefore, if you specified R=255, G=255 and B=255, you get white. Conversely, Black is R=0, G=0, B=0. So, to create a strong yellow, this would mean ‘adding’ green and red together and so on.

When designing purely for the web, you don’t really need to worry about colour modes as you don’t have a great deal of control how the colours will look on other people’s monitors. However, the colours shouldn’t be a million miles away as most colour monitors will be able to display a full range – or ‘gamut’ – of colours.

There are also sub-formats of RGB such as web-safe RGB, hexadecimal, HTML and CSS references, but for the purpose of this post, think RGB=Web!

Designing for Web and Print
Where it gets tricky is designing for the web and print.

It’s usually wrong to assume that when designing for print, the colours you see on your screen on your design – or on a ‘soft’ proof PDF, png, jpg etc. from your designer – will remain exactly the same when reproduced as a hard copy (a printed business card, leaflet, banner etc.) .

For a designer, getting this wrong for a client when creating artwork intended for print will usually result in a very unhappy customer and one who who is unlikely to return. For a ‘DIYer’, time and expense in having the artwork printed again and possibly missing an important deadline.

The CMYK mode is in many ways the exact opposite of RGB. It is a ‘subtractive’ system and uses 4 ‘channels’ of colours, CMYK: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Key (Black). Incidentally, ‘Key’ is the reference for Black and is used instead of ‘B’ to help lessen confusion, say, from ‘Blue’ (there are other definitions, but it’s easier to just remember that K=Black!).

To simplify the theory, think of the meaning of ‘subtractive’ as the more colours you add together, the darker the colours will be (the ‘true’ definition is that light is absorbed or removed to create various colours).

To give an idea of the colour mode in a design situation, each level of C,M,Y or K is stated as a percentage from 0 to 100%. For example, for Black it would be C=0, M=0, Y=0 and K=100. For Red, with just a hint of blue to darken it, it would be C=5, M=100, Y=100 and K=0.

The matter gets highly confusing when you consider that many home printers can actually print using the full RGB spectrum! However, CMYK is still used by most commercial printers so if you’re looking to get something printed professionally, you still need to set it up – or convert it – into CMYK.

Spot Colours: “I want my logo a stronger orange than that. What can I do?”
CMYK does have inherent limitations, one of the main being it sometimes lacks vibrancy or colour saturation.

This is where ‘Spot’ or ‘Pantone’ colours come in. Just to add to the confusion(!), if you absolutely must have a very strong, pure colour as part of your artwork or logo – especially some oranges, blue-greens etc. – you must specify a ‘Spot’ or ‘Pantone’ colour and give your printer the reference number of that colour.

This adds another channel to your standard 4 CMYK set-up and will correspondingly add to the cost of printing and (sometimes) design.

Colour Shift
Spot colours are often used in printing fluorescent inks, special finishes and other colours that cannot be faithfully reproduced using the CMYK spectrum. Incidentally, don’t think you can set up the file as CMYK in your design program, add in a Pantone colour and everything will print fine. It’s the same as if you send it in RGB to print; the printer’s software will take a guess at the colour and convert it to CMYK and the resulting change in colour is seldom satisfactory (this is technically termed the ‘colour shift’).

Design your web stuff in RGB, your print artwork in CMYK. A good designer should always check that the artwork sent to print is in CMYK format/mode and if they have initially designed it for the web in RGB, the colour shift when changing between the 2 modes isn’t really noticeable.

We suggest if you’re a new company – and/or on a limited budget – avoid the extra cost of spot colours, find an alternative, or get your designer to do it for you.

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