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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Commercial Printing: Selecting Ink Colors for Design

Color choice is a major tool in design for any printed or virtual image. Colors elicit emotion and give subtle clues as to the meaning of an ad, print book cover, poster, or website.

A particular color can suggest a formal approach to a subject or a more playful air. It can intimate that an ad is targeted to children rather than to adults, or vice versa, even before you have read a word of the copy.

But How Do You Choose Colors for a Custom Printing Product?

Jim Krause’s book Design Basics Index suggests a number of approaches, three of which particularly stood out as I was paging through his book last night.

    1. Choose a dominant color based on associations that have become traditional “hooks.” For instance, gold and burgundy can suggest opulence. Yellows and oranges bring to mind summer sun and surf. Starting with this dominant color, you can then add one or two colors from the color wheel that are analagous (next to your color on the color wheel), complementary (opposite your color on the color wheel), or split complementary (one color to the left or right of the complement on the color wheel).


    1. If you are placing an image in an ad, or an initial page spread of a magazine article, use Photoshop’s eyedropper tool to sample one or more colors within the image, and then use these colors in your color scheme. Design Basics Index includes a photo of a candy dish full of lemon drops in this section of the book. Krause suggests sampling the blue of the dish and the yellow of the candies, and then he creates several sample designs with the blues and yellows (the hues of the candy dish photo plus their tints).


    1. Walk away from the computer and look at the world. See what colors in nature go well together, what colors are appropriate for autumn, for instance, or spring, for the beach or the mountains. Learn to look closely. Make it a part of your daily activities. This awareness will enliven your design.


  1. Paint with watercolors or acrylics, draw with pastels, and see how colors behave when you’re mixing them. This will enhance your color awareness when you’re doing graphic design as well.

How Do You Apply This to an Actual Design Project?

A little later in Krause’s chapter on color, he shows four iterations of a logo for Star Fine Candies, encouraging designers to experiment in their own work by keeping certain design elements constant (like the logo mark and the type treatment) while varying other elements (like the choice of colors).

    1. The Star Fine Candies logo comprises a star made of striped candies, the business name “STAR” (in a bold sans serif type) and “Fine Candies” in a script face. All four iterations of the logo include these same graphic elements.


    1. The first sample logo depicts the candies in the shape of a star in two colors: orange and yellow. “STAR” is printed in black, and “Fine Candies” is printed in orange. The overall treatment is colorful and dramatic. Since “STAR” is printed in black in a bold sans serif typeface, it is the dominant element. One thing to consider, however, is that the delicate lines of “Fine Candies” make the dark orange seem lighter than would a solid block of this color. It’s good to remember that the thinner the type, or the smaller the logo (such as the logo on a business card), the harder it will be to read. Additionally, the cost of the commercial printing job will reflect three-color custom printing (three PMS colors in the sample logo). This may be more expensive than four-color process (since the press will need to be cleaned and the process colors will need to be replaced with PMS colors). Also, three-color custom printing costs more than two-color printing.


    1. Iteration #2 of the logo changes the “Fine Candies” text in the script font from orange to black, which makes it more dominant and more legible. In addition, the two-color images of candies that comprise the star have changed from orange and yellow to orange and a lighter screen of orange. It’s a subtle difference. Perhaps it’s not quite as colorful, but only marginally so. In addition, it only requires a two-color commercial printing run, so it will cost less than the first option to print.


    1. Option #3 is also a two-color print job. Krause has placed the “star” logomark image of the candies, the word “STAR,” and “Fine Candies” over a yellow rectangle, knocking out portions of the logo (the stripes in the candies and the word “STAR”). This gives the illusion of a third color (white) without needing to pay for one. However, the overall look is more delicate than either of the two prior iterations.


  1. Option #4 uses only one color plus screens of the color (simulating three levels of value within the candies that comprise the star). The words are all one solid color. This is the cheapest iteration of the logo to print (one color costs less than two or three).

You really can’t say that one or another of these iterations of the logo is “correct.” Each has its merits and implications: for readability, associations with certain colors, and commercial printing costs.

As a designer, you can increase your value to your clients by approaching their work in these ways, and by developing and presenting a number of closely related solutions.

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