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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: Creating and Selecting Color for Graphic Design

Photo purchased from …

When I look at the photo above, all I can say is, “Ahhhhhhhhh.” Nobody chooses color schemes better than nature. In fact, if I saw this image in a brochure for island travel, I’d buy a ticket and go.

Understanding color in commercial printing or, in this case, marketing can take a lifetime of study. How do you choose what colors to pair in a marketing brochure? What colors will work together to be the most emotionally evocative?

How Is Color Created?

First of all, color is a function of light and vision. In the dark, no color exists, and until the rods and cones in your eye interact with color, it also doesn’t really exist. (Actually, it’s the cones that help you discern color; the rods help you see objects in low light. But they do work together.)

Regarding RGB and CMYK, there are two ways to create color. One is with light. The other is with pigment (paint, printing ink, etc.).

When you combine the three additive colors (RGB), you create white light. Your computer monitor does this. Filters covering theater lights do the same thing. That said, you can create an amazing number of distinct colors by varying the amounts of red, green, and blue light.

The same is true for subtractive colors (CMY or cyan, magenta, and yellow, plus the additional K or black), which are used for creating color with ink, paint, and other physical pigments (i.e., not with light). You can also create a huge number of distinct colors this way, although the color gamut (range of colors you can create) is smaller for CMY(K) than for RGB. This is why many people prefer to keep their photos in RGB format until the time comes to submit the art files to the commercial printing supplier. At that point, designers can either change from RGB to CMY(K) (and see on their computer monitor what changes occur) or leave the conversion to the printer (which usually happens automatically, or “on the fly”).

In contrast to additive colors (red, green, blue) which create white light, subtractive colors when combined create black (or actually a dark brown) ink (or paint). To darken this muddy brown, custom printing vendors add black ink (“K,” which stands for “key,” so as not to be confused with “b” for “blue”). Hence we have CMYK.

To get back to additive vs. subtractive color, when you add red and blue light, you get magenta. But with subtractive color, combining cyan and magenta removes or subtracts yellow light and creates the perception of blue. (That’s why I noted above that color is a function of light and one’s vision. You have an “experience” of perceiving color.)

Why Is Color Powerful for Marketing?

We associate different emotions with different colors. Interestingly enough, this is often specific to a particular culture (i.e., different from culture to culture). The emotions that colors evoke are often intense, and they are often related to the characteristic of warmth or coolness in a particular hue. That is, yellows, reds, and oranges are warm colors and are often perceived emotionally as being more active and outgoing—or warm, like “warm,” outgoing people. In contrast, cool colors, such as blues and greens, are often perceived as more reserved. They don’t “jump out” the way warm colors do.

An effective marketing designer makes it a point to be conscious of the audience’s associations of color with emotion (from culture to culture) and to use this awareness in persuasive ways while designing promotional pieces. The photo at the beginning of this article is one example. To make the design of a publication incorporating this seaside view more powerful, the designer might bring the color scheme of the photo into the surrounding type and area screens. Maybe she or he would bring the blues of the sky into the color of the headlines, and perhaps the background colors could echo either the light brown of the sand or the warm yellows and oranges of the sky.

Choosing Color for Publications

Personally, I find the process of selecting color from photos within the design to be much easier than devising a color scheme arbitrarily, so I depend on color combinations most often seen in nature.

That said, you can also use the following information as a starting point. It is based on the (subtractive) color wheel, which is a commercial printing model with cyan, magenta, and yellow equidistant on the circle. These are the primaries, and if you’re drawing your own color wheel, you can add the secondary colors next. Between magenta and yellow you have red. Between magenta and cyan you have blue. And between cyan and yellow you have green.

So now, with the primaries and secondaries noted on the color wheel, you have six colors, with the secondary colors being a mix of the primaries. You can even go a step further and add the tertiary colors which are mixtures of one primary and one secondary (yellow mixed with green makes yellow-green, for instance).

Colors opposite each other on the color wheel will vibrate visually when placed next to one another. This can be somewhat jarring, unless the tone of your publication matches the “energy” of the complementary colors being placed together.

For other visual effects you have other options. For instance, an achromatic color scheme involves the absence of color (i.e., black and white). A monochromatic color scheme includes colors based on the same base hue (screens of a particular blue, for instance).

Triads are created from three colors equidistant on the color wheel. Analogous colors (which would be more subdued than complementary colors) are side by side on the color wheel (green, yellow, and yellow-green, for example).

And split complements, which bring in a third color, include the two colors on either side of the complement of the first color you select. Another way to say this is that you pick a color, like red. Then you determine its complement (opposite on the color wheel), which is green. Then you choose blue-green and yellow-green to use along with the initial red. These three hues will be somewhat vibrant, but you may in fact want this. (Otherwise you might select analogous colors for a softer effect, as noted above.)

An Easier Approach

Once you get the general idea of the physics and color theory I’ve described, it’s much easier to choose colors in the following ways:

    1. Do what I often do, and pay attention to colors that go together in nature.


    1. Look for graphic design books that show combinations of two or three colors formatted as swatches of color alongside one another. (This approach can be somewhat misleading when you’re putting type in a color, because the thin serifs and strokes of letterforms don’t really use up much ink. Therefore, they may look much lighter than a solid or even screened color sample when printed.)


    1. Look for already-printed publications with color schemes you like, and then use these color schemes in your own design work. (One benefit is that you can see what type, screens, and solids will look like in various colors, and you can see whether type set in a particular color will still be readable.)


    1. Then design with the colors you have chosen and print out a color mock-up (inkjet or color laser). Don’t assume that, just because you like what you see on the computer monitor (color made with light), your choices will work well when printed (color made with pigment or, in this case, ink).


  1. Buy sample color books (unfortunately, they are expensive) that show type, a photo, a solid, and a screen in each of a myriad of colors. These are often set up based on PMS colors, but you might also find the same kind of print books based on CMYK color builds.

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