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Designers know things - such as the difference between CMYK and Spot color

Designers know things - such as the difference between CMYK and Spot color

While stock art, stock layouts, templates, and impressively good starter layouts in consumer applications have sped along the democratization of design, I was recently reminded, as a designer, I still have some special knowledge and experience. I’m not pompous, I’m merely acknowledging that, as a professional, I have specific knowledge within my field and industry.

I’ve explained CMYK vs PANTONE thousands of times

During my lengthy design career I’ve often found myself explaining the difference between process color and spot color printing. I’ve shown people dot patterns under loupes and held swatch books up for comparison. I’ve done this with inexperienced clients, young designers that are still learning, and even my young daughter. I enjoy sharing knowledge and explaining things. It still fascinates me as well.

But a recent design project brought it to the forefront of my mind - as I had to have the CMYK / PMS talk again. We picked up a project that had been started by another designer. Everything was proceeding fine and the project was wrapping up. The project was packaging that consisted of boxes printing offset, labels printing digitally, and tubes being silk screened. But as I was preparing files, a thought popped into my head.

The colors the previous designer has specified were uncoated PMS spot colors. Not a big deal, but I began to wonder if the jobs were actually printing spot or process - and had the client ever actually been shown the difference? Turns out everything was supposed to print CMYK - that’s how it has been quoted by the suppliers. But as things wrapped up, each box, label, and tube really only used three spot colors. So printing CMYK wasn’t necessary. And what was worse, the colors were greens and purples that don’t reproduce well out of CMYK. And with three different vendors printing them - each using a different method - it became clear I had to figure this out on behalf of the client.

Bring out the PMS swatch books

The first step in the process was to meet the client and to review the exact spot colors using our Pantone swatch books. Which led to the discussion of printing Spot colors verses Process Colors - and we compared the same color swatches printed both ways. Which illuminated an immediate problem. The client didn’t actually like the color purple that had been chosen. They had never been shown the PMS and/or CMYK Match swatch. So they had only ever reviewed digital prints or on-screen PDFs - until now.

So the first step was to figure out what color they actually expected. We reviewed proofs and signage they had printed to identify the color they liked. And since the quotes for their packaging had been all based on printing the jobs as CMYK - we carefully picked from the color bridge book to identify a purple that matched their expectations as a process build.

Initial proofs came back - but there were issues.

When the first color proofs came back from the various printers we identified some changes that were necessary. Fonts were too thin and type too small because they were being built out of process colors (CMYK). So we adjusted things. But as we did that, the box printer recommended we print as SPOT colors, and the Tube Decorator confirmed their silk screen process would use spot colors too. So as we tweaked the designs, we also adjusted the colors to be PMS spot colors. But that’s when another problem popped up.

The chosen purple, good as CMYK, bad as SPOT.

The purple’s Pantone CMYK matched color looked good - but its spot color counterpart looked like an Easter egg color. Very saturated and very bright. It wasn’t what they wanted at all. So we drove out with swatch books in hand again and worked through selecting a spot color Pantone purple that would work.

But the labels were still printing digitally and that meant CMYK. However, now the process version of our newly chosen spot color purple did not look good. So we had to take an extra step. We ordered ink draw down samples to use as a color matching guide. An ink draw down is when the Pantone spot colors are mixed up and applied by hand to your chosen stock (paper) so you can see how it will look. It can be an important step when you’re printing on non-white stocks - but all our packaging is white - so for us it was to simply provide a color standard.

The ink draw down samples were sliced up and sent out to the various printers as the “client-approved” color swatches. To be fair, the boxes and tubes were using spot colors, so they could have just as easily matched the Pantone swatch. But for the labels, which were printing digitally via CMYK, the swatch is critical so they can adjust the colors to match the approved standard. In the future, the labels will likely print via flexography, so then we can switch to spot colors - but the urgency of the project prohibited switching course at this point. So the color swatch standard was the best solution.

The final outcome - good color all around

As I type this, all the vendor presses will soon be rolling. Our expectations are high and we’re fairly confident that with our selected color, custom made ink draw down swatch, and all the team players on the same page, that our outcome will be fantastic. Everyone feels good that a color calamity was averted and we’re looking forward to seeing the packaging on store shelves soon.

The lesson of my story? To choose your designer and vendors carefully and to make sure they’re all communicating well. And of course, that yes, your designer may know a thing or two that you don’t. That doesn’t make them erudite - it simply means their experience and knowledge can help guide you to a better outcome.

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Mar 16, 2016
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