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Thoughts from Extrabold Design


Boldly going beyond full colour: the spot colour bonus

There’s plenty of good-value promotional print available to everyone these days through online print shops, which by pooling print runs are able to bring affordable full-colour print to the masses in a way never experienced before.

Whilst this democratisation of commercial print is a good thing there is still a flaw in the system. The thing is, what is termed ‘full colour’ really falls well short of what could reasonably be described as, well, full colour. Full colour print uses the CMYK colour system – that’s the overlay of inks of the four ‘process’ colours, cyan (C), magenta (M), yellow (Y) and black (K) to render images and text in an approximation of visual spectrum colour.

The problem is that the range of colours available through this system is really quite limited – a lot of colours are just not physically achievable, and by quite a noticeable margin. Whilst overlaying solid or high-percentage areas of two or three of the process colours C, M or Y can achieve vibrancy, most other really vibrant or deep shades are beyond the reach of CMYK. So your zingy oranges or intense blues just come out looking comparatively dull or muddy.

That’s not necessarily so much of an issue with photographic images, but what about the graphic elements of your branding where you might want colour consistency across printed and digital media?

For example, with the Extrabold identity I’ve adopted a nice, bold, in-your-face orange as a prominent component in the look. Now, that looks great on screen because the RGB (red, green, blue) colour model of digital media accommodates much more vivid colours than printed CMYK does. But in print I’ve got a problem – the colours on my business cards, even in full colour print, won’t match those on my website. Yes, granted, a first-world problem, but a problem nonetheless for anyone that takes pride in the co-ordination of their presentation across media!

The good news, however, is that something called ‘spot colour’ can come to the rescue. A spot colour is printed using a special, dedicated ink of the exact colour desired, and these colours are normally specified using the Pantone® Matching System, a range of named, formulated ink colours.

Spot colour is not new – it has been around in the printing industry for a very long time. It’s just that it’s now getting more affordable to add an additional spot colour to the standard full colour print process, even for small, relatively low-run items like business cards. More and more of the online print shops are offering this as an optional extra, and whilst it does bump up the cost a bit it can be worth it to make your printed materials really sing out rather than mumble. You can even superimpose spot colours onto photographic images to add coloured highlights to them.

I’ve used spot colour for the orange areas on my business card (see below), and what I’m really pleased about is that these cards look as lively in real life as they do on screen, and that was only possible through the application of spot colour.

Image of the Extrabold business card showing the difference between a CMYK orange and a special spot orange

One fly in the ointment is that spot colour (please correct me if things have suddenly moved on!) is not yet available in digital print – only print processes like litho and silk screen, where inks are used as opposed to toners, can currently accommodate spot colours. Undoubtedly, the technology will move on to allow spot colours in digital print one day too.

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