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What Is CMYK? Spot Color and Process Color in Print Designs

What exactly is the difference between spot color and process color, and what is the definition of CMYK? Learn all this and more with these examples of print designs.

How do you know which to choose between spot color and process color when you go to print your designs? And what is CMYK, anyway?


What is a Spot Color in Printing?

A spot color is a color created from inks laid down in a single run in offset printing. Spot color printing is best when you have a lot of the same color, or if you need extreme precision in your printing.

Is Spot Color the Same as Pantone?

Image via Indypendenz.

Spot color is not the same as Pantone, but is a subset of it. Follow the spot color concept for matching Pantone colors. Pantone colors and spot colors share a unique characteristic: they are meant to be precise. Using a printer that combines CMYK won’t do for a lot of Pantone colors. Though there are Pantone colors that can be matched to CMYK colors, the vast majority are unique and require the spot color system for printing.

Do Manufacturers Have to Follow Spot Color?

Yes. Pantone is so strict about their precision that they require ink manufacturers with Pantone licenses to submit annual samples of eighteen basic Pantone colors for approval. They are only allowed to order colors once they have successfully been approved.

What Is the Purpose of Spot Color?

Consistency in a brand is very important to organizations, as this is how customers identify their products. The purpose of spot color is to allow designers and manufacturers to guarantee that a particular color will always be a particular shade.

This is critical for operations like branding, or any time you need to print a specific color in a large print. The last thing a manufacturer wants is a large print that unintentionally changes shades of red halfway through.

What Is the Difference Between Spot and Process Color?

Spot colors are colors created in a single run of offset printing. They are very specific colors that the designer needs to be the exact color. So, there is little room for error with spot colors.

Image via joingate.

In contrast, process colors are a combination of four different colors used during printing. Typically, process color is called CMYK. CMYK is a four-color process of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. The printer creates four different screen tints, one for each color. Then it applies small dots to each screen tint according to how they should combine to form a single color per dot. Once that is successful, each color overprints the next to form the colored image. The combination of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black can yield virtually any color distinguishable by the naked eye.


Cover image via Bule Sky Studio.

Want to learn more about using color in your designs? Check out these articles:

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