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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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Custom Printing: Useful Thoughts on Choosing Color

Understanding color and using it well in your commercial printing and web design can be a major challenge for some and a natural, intuitive process for others. For me it took a lot of study, but I was fortunate to have found many useful books on color over the years. I would encourage you to do the same. When done with a critical eye and observant personality, learning about color can be a rewarding life challenge.

In this light, I recently paged through Digital Color and Type by Rob Carter and found a few choice facts about color that may help you choose color schemes for your own custom printing design work.

What Is the Difference Between a Monochromatic and Achromatic Color Scheme?

I used to mix these up, but here’s a helpful clue to avoid confusion: Monochromatic (“mono,” meaning one) color schemes are based on a single color (or “hue”) along with its tints and shades (i.e., the addition of white or black).

An achromatic color scheme, on the other hand, has no color (a-chromatic, from the Latin for “without color”). If you’re designing with an achromatic color scheme, you’re using white, black, and any number of grays.

Aside from being able to communicate well with a commercial printing supplier, it helps to understand these two terms if you design or coordinate the design of printed materials. Both color schemes will provide a consistent “look” to the piece you’re designing. Another term for such consistency is “color harmony,” which is based on the idea that keeping colors within a design piece to a minimum of related hues will provide a sense of unity to the design.

Use Colors That Work Well Together

Rob Carter includes a brief aid to choosing colors in Digital Color and Type. Carter lists some rules of thumb to get you started:

    1. Choose a dominant color, and then add only a few other hues to this dominant color.


    1. Choose colors with a common element. (It will help you to study the color wheel to learn what colors can be mixed to create other colors. This includes mixing primary colors to get secondary colors—i.e., blue and yellow create green–and mixing primary with secondary colors to get tertiary colors.) Carter goes on to say that harmony can result from using colors that are side by side on the color wheel or colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel (i.e., both similar colors used together and dissimilar colors used together can create color harmony).


    1. Pair vivid colors with their tints and shades rather than with too many other vivid colors. This will unify the design and avoid the vivid colors’ competing with one another.


  1. Pair achromatic colors with “pure hues” (Carter), tints, and shades. (Stated differently, black, white, and gray go well with any other color.)

Most of the rules in this section of Carter’s book focus on choosing a dominant color and then augmenting your color palette with less vibrant hues. Carter also encourages readers to study the color schemes (primary, secondary, tertiary, monochromatic, achromatic, complementary, split complementary, analogous, neutral, and incongruous). Starting with this knowledge base, readers can then experiment.

Consider Both the Type and Its Background (and Strive for Readability)

The color of a design element only exists in relationship (and in contrast to) other areas of color. When you’re setting type in a color, be mindful of the background. Carter notes that “You arrive at the most legible combinations [of colors] when you strive for strong contrasts of hue (warm vs. cool), value (light vs. dark), saturation (vivid vs. dull), and combinations of these (Digital Color and Type, p.16).

Moreover, the extent of contrast in the value of a background area and the type placed over the background will do more to ensure legibility than will any other contrast in the above-mentioned list. (Another way to say this is that dark type on a light background–or light type on a dark background–will be easier to read than a mid-toned type of any color on a mid-toned background of any color.) And to a graphic designer, legibility is crucial.

Carter does note that it is easier to read darker type on a lighter background. However, to create a particular graphic effect for a custom printing project, it’s quite acceptable to position small amounts of lighter type on a darker background.

2 Responses to “Custom Printing: Useful Thoughts on Choosing Color”

  1. Really good piece of information for using colors in printing.

    As we are in printing industry it is very important to play with colors with proper variations where ever and when needed, otherwise we cannot give proper output or finish product to our customers because color is the success key for printing.

    Also thanks to Carter for sharing useful information.

    Keep posting

    • admin says:

      Thank you for your comment. I agree. I think color is important in evoking a mood in any printed piece. Its effects are subtle but powerful. Understanding the use of color is crucial to good design.


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