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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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Archive for the ‘Color Theory’ Category

Know Everything About Color Printing Service

Tuesday, July 27th, 2021

No one would not be impressed if they received colored business cards instead of the traditional pale white ones. Bright colors in the proper combination might help you get your desired outcomes. There is no alternative for real color business stationery, and you can now acquire the highest quality of these via internet services. There are several reasons why you should hire professional color printing online instead of relying on traditional methods.

Today’s printing options are considerably more diverse than they were a decade ago. Color printing online is displacing brick and mortar printing businesses. Is it all glitz and glam, or are there some flaws? Let’s have a look.

Service Is Available Around The Clock.

Instant access to information and services is the first and most evident. You don’t have to drive to your printer anymore. Any online printing provider with templates and an online designer allows customers to purchase business cards from the convenience of their own workplace or home. It’s all about immediate satisfaction, and it’s a tremendous time and money-saving.


Yes, the cost is an important consideration. Although I don’t believe apples and oranges can be compared. The personal touch offsets the high cost of a brick-and-mortar printing firm. In some instances, meeting face to face may be preferable. However, most concerns or questions may be resolved with a simple phone call or email.

When searching for a deal, be sure you’re not getting nickeled and dimed. Many online printing firms attempt to increase sales by adding on additional services and features. Look for a printer who is open and honest about the ultimate pricing.


Inserting an uploaded picture into your design is a breeze. You don’t like what you’ve just done, do you? Delete, modify, or restart. You may also save your designs to edit or present to your peers at a later time. A design can be stored under a different name as well. This allows you to create a single master design that all of your employees can use. Online printing services are made to be adaptable.

Professional Designs Are Available.

When working with a professional, good design may be costly. For example, properly designed business cards need effort and talent. For someone searching for a low-cost method to get started, having access to well-designed logos and templates is a huge benefit. However, there are occasions when you require a unique design, such as a logo or a postcard for your new real estate listing. Make sure your online printing provider is versatile and capable of handling such jobs. Make sure your final printed content appears professional in any situation. Don’t waste your money on shoddy, amateurish designs. Consider your online printing services to be an extension of your company.

Use a high-quality color printing online service to match the high-quality output you require to ensure that all of your creative efforts pay off.

Are you looking for some high-quality marketing tools? Brochures, stationery, presentation folders, catalogs, newsletters, and business cards are all items that should be printed utilizing online color printing services. Whether it’s a trade exhibition, product catalogs, professional-looking mailers, or just improving your newsletter, you can be confident that employing the newest online color printing services will put your company over the top.

Commercial Printing: Creating and Selecting Color for Graphic Design

Monday, June 28th, 2021

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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.

Commercial Printing: Manipulating Color Value for the Best Effect

Sunday, June 20th, 2021

Photo purchased from …

I recently discovered an exceptional commercial printing textbook that focuses exclusively on color. Needless to say, my fiancee and I found it at our favorite thrift store. The print book is entitled Understanding Color: An Introduction for Designers, and it was written by Linda Holtzschue. It’s accessible and comprehensive. If you can get a copy online, it’s worth it.

Summarizing this book would take a book in itself, but since color holds such emotional power in graphic design (as well as in fine arts and also in real life), I’d like to share a few points of interest from this text. These include real life examples of my own based on the descriptions of color usage in the print book. I think you may find them useful in your own design work.

One Color Is Affected by Its Surrounding Background Color

I saw a calendar recently that included a striking photo of the sun as dusk approached. The sun was still bright yellow, but there was a lot of purple in the clouds extending outward on the page. What intrigued me was just how bright the sun looked. After all, it could not physically have been lighter than the white press sheet on which the image had been printed. But it did seem to radiate a brilliant light.

What this shows is that a color looks different depending on the colors that surround it. First of all, since yellow and purple are complementary colors (i.e., directly opposite on the color wheel), they vibrate visually when placed next to each other. In the case of the sunset in the calendar photo, the yellow of the sun and the purple of the surrounding sky, as complementary colors, seem to be more vibrant due to their proximity.

Moreover, the yellow of the sun in the calendar photo I saw appeared to be brighter than even the press sheet on which it had been printed because of the striking contrast in the value of the yellow and the surrounding purple. Value is the property of color related to its lightness or darkness, separately from its hue (the name of the color, like “blue” and “red”). While red and green (also complementary colors) are much closer to one another in value, purple and yellow are very different. A fully saturated purple is extremely dark, but a saturated yellow is extremely light. So, placed in close proximity, the yellow makes the purple look darker, and the purple makes the yellow look lighter.

If you read Understanding Color: An Introduction for Designers, you will see examples of one color square surrounded by another color, as well as the same initial color with a different background. (Let’s say a light green surrounded by either blue or orange.) The same color (in the center) can look very different depending on whether the background is orange or blue. It can look lighter or darker, for instance. You can even make two different green swatches (two slightly different hues) look the same depending on the colors of their backgrounds.

So how does this affect you in real life, you may ask. If you’re an interior designer, for example, and you choose a neutral gray carpet for a room, you may find that depending on the other colors in the room, the neutral gray carpet may appear to have a color cast. It therefore helps to understand the properties and behavior of color and also to be alert, in case you or your client perceives such a color cast.

Needless to say, there’s a lot of science, optics, and commercial printing technology referenced in Understanding Color: An Introduction for Designers regarding colors in proximity to one another. If you can get this print book, you may find this information interesting. If not, it still helps to know the cardinal rule: Colors look different based on their surroundings.

Type on a Background

Overprinting colored type on a colored background is similar to the aforementioned topic, and it’s therefore something to fully understand when designing for custom printing.

Understanding Color: An Introduction for Designers includes a swatch of orange with blue type surprinted over the background to illustrate this point. The rule of thumb in Holtzschue’s print book is that value (lightness vs. darkness) rather than hue (the named color) determines the readability of such type. Understanding Color: An Introduction for Designers actually includes three separate orange swatches (same hue) overprinted with light, medium, and dark type.

The lightest version of the blue text is the same value as the orange background. It is therefore almost completely unreadable. The medium version of the blue is better, but my aging eyes still find reading the text difficult. More than a few words, and the designer would have lost my interest. (And in an ad, the advertiser might have lost my purchase.)

As in a famous fairy tale about bears, the third option, the dark blue, is “just right.”

So what can we learn? First of all, separately from the fact that two colors are composed of the four process colors and therefore may include common elements (which complicates matters), the best way I know to predict the readability of colored type on a colored background is to trust your eyes, mention your concern to your printer, and request a proof.

If I were making decisions such as those shown in the three options in Understanding Color: An Introduction for Designers, I’d print a an inkjet proof. Then I’d decide visually which value of the blue is readable on the orange. I’d also ask the printer for advice, and I’d look very closely at the printer’s contract proof prior to final printing. Or I’d take the safest route and print black type on the orange background.

Needless to say, the takeaway from this example is that the readability of type printed in color depends on the contrast of value between the text and the background.

How Color Translates to Value

Understanding Color: An Introduction for Designers includes six images of birds and four images of butterflies in one of its discussions on color values. So this is actually related to the other examples I have cited above.

More specifically, the birds are printed side by side in green and red, orange and blue, and yellow and purple. Interestingly enough, each of these pairs contains two complementary colors (opposites on the color wheel). Furthermore, all six images appear to be “coordinated” visually. They go together. They appear to be six different colored images of the same bird (a simple black-and-one-color rendering).

But if you read the accompanying text, you’ll learn that (as noted earlier in this article) colors distributed around the color wheel have different values. At full saturation (intensity, color purity), the birds would appear different and might compete or even clash visually. Some would be lighter in value and others would be darker. They certainly would not feel coordinated.

Therefore, the print book presents the birds’ colors at different levels of saturation to make the color values consistent. For instance, the yellow bird appears to be of the same value as the other colored birds because the yellow is fully saturated, but the purple is more subdued (less intense, less saturated). Therefore, the purple bird actually has the same value as the yellow bird. Interestingly enough, the green and red birds are almost equal in value, so they are equally saturated, and the blue and orange colors seem to be in more of a middle ground (not as similar in value as red and green, but not as different as yellow and purple).

So what do we learn from this? If you want an even, coordinated effect, consider adjusting the saturation of the color (not the hue) to vary its value. And the way to reduce saturation is to add gray or the complement of the color.

(This means that, at least in one color model, the three variables are hue, saturation, and brightness or value. If you do some research into this and other color models—ways of describing color in the commercial printing field–in your Photoshop documentation, you’ll find a wealth of information regarding their implications, benefits, and usage.)

Understanding Color: An Introduction for Designers includes one other set of images, four butterflies printed in black only. Like the birds noted above, they are simple line drawings with several tints of black added. Unlike the birds, in which color values have been adjusted to make all the birds appear to be alike, the value distribution in the black and white butterflies is all different. It’s beautiful. It’s an interesting effect. But each of the four butterflies, unlike the six birds, looks different from all of the others. What you can learn from this is that you can alter the viewer’s perception based on whether the values of repeated images are different or the same, and you can alter the value of a color by varying its saturation while maintaining its hue.

Color Printing Online Made Easy

Thursday, November 5th, 2020

It is hard to imagine any industry that can function without the services of color printing online. Whether it is a restaurant, automobile company, computer peripherals, or electronics store, all of them require color prints to make their products easily available to customers.

These days, there are certain companies which provide color printing online services by acting as print coordination companies, whereby they get in touch with suitable print vendors in the world. As per a client’s requirement, each of these companies places a bid with the coordinator, and then the client can select accordingly. Thereby, this process helps to pick a company on the basis of both quality and price.

Offers are always available

In most cases, print companies are likely to provide attractive offers to their clients through the coordinator. This is truly the beauty of how online printing has turned the tide around in this field. By choosing one of the available offers, clients will always get maximum bang for buck. What’s more, clients do not have to pay for the services being offered by the print coordinator.

Good customer service

Today’s print companies have excellent customer service support, enabling them to deliver highly personalized services to every client. Though a customer IVR (Interactive Voice Response) may seem difficult at first, one gets the hang of it by listening carefully. The primary job of a customer service department is follow-ups, which they always handle with aplomb when with a reputed company.

Top benefits of color printing

Over time, studies have shown that color printing has displayed the following benefits:

  1. It makes every message more memorable by up to 39%
  2. It enhances readership of direct mail by a whopping 55%
  3. Attention span and recall are automatically increased by 82%
  4. Brand recognition also goes up by 80%
  5. It gives a thoroughly professional appearance


Every individual requires more color in his or her life, and no company should be any different. However, owning color printers and maintaining them can become quite a hassle over time. This is the reason why many businesses find it profitable to outsource these requirements.

Choose the type and size of paper

One of the main advantages of getting prints online is that a massive amount of customization is possible. It is possible to choose from different sizes and types of paper. Irrespective of where in the world such companies are located, they can arrange deliveries for any company in the stipulated time.

Here is a look at the different types of paper:

  1. Glossy- Such papers have a shiny look and make text or photos appear lively. Captions and geometric designs can be showcased using these.
  2. Matte- It is a great choice of paper for black and white prints, giving a professional touch to all photo prints. Since they are anti glare, they look very elegant and classy.
  3. Metallic- The name comes from images or text being printed on metallic paper. Metallic papers are very popular among commercial photographers.

Lustre- Images here are printed on Lustre photo paper, delivering highly saturated prints

Custom Printing: Who Chooses the Color of the Year?

Monday, September 28th, 2020

Photo purchased from …

Who chooses the Color of the Year? I know these words are reminiscent of the Academy Awards. And now, the envelope please. The winner is chartreuse.

But seriously, color is extraordinarily powerful. In most cases a full-color photograph will grab your attention more quickly than a black and white photo (depending, of course, in large part on the surrounding images). The same is true when you consider the specific green of Starbucks or the orange of Home Depot or the multi-colored Apple logo. In all cases, the color ensures immediate brand recognition.

Colors touch people’s memories, their emotions. People associate certain colors with certain attributes (perhaps a deep purple with opulence, or an orange with an upbeat disposition).

In different cultures, however, the same colors might have opposite connotations, a good reason to do research when designing a logo.

Or think of fashion and interior design. Look at Vogue magazine. Observe the particular colors of the clothes the models are wearing, or the colors of their interior surroundings. Colors make powerful statements about people.

But who chooses these colors? Who says, “This year, Chili Pepper, Pantone 19-1557, is what everyone should bring into their fashion color palette”? (Actually that’s a much easier question, and the answer is Executive Director of the Pantone Color Institute, Leatrice Eiseman. The year in question for “Chili Pepper” was 2007.)

The Backstory

It is within this context that a dear friend and commercial printing colleague asked me about the Pantone Color Institute’s yearly color choices, and more specifically about who makes the selections.

To begin with, what is the Pantone Color Institute, and what is Pantone, in general?

If you’re a graphic designer or commercial printing supplier, your desk is probably no farther than four feet from a PMS swatchbook, which lists all PMS colors. These can be mixed (like a baking recipe) from a limited number of colors (13 base pigments plus black, although for a while, from 2007 to 2013, Pantone used fewer colors—10 plus clear coating—for the Pantone Goe System).

These mixtures of pigments create a much larger color gamut than CMYK (the traditional four-color printing ink set, which has at various times been augmented with such colors as orange and green to expand the universe of printable hues). Color builds of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black cannot match the rich and varied hues of an RGB (red, green, blue) computer monitor. This can be a problem if you have specific corporate colors for your logo, for instance. In such cases (that is, if you want to match a particular color that cannot be achieved with a CMYK build), you use a PMS book to select a specific, mixed color. The Pantone Color Institute creates this book of color swatches and curates the annual Color of the Year selection process.

Pantone colors have the incredible benefit of allowing printers all across the globe to communicate color choices, standardize custom printing press output on either coated or uncoated papers, and even translate specific printed colors (reasonably closely) to colors generated on computer monitors. This benefits print production workers, fashion design artists, product designers, and interior designers such as wallpaper designers and upholstery designers, such that everyone involved can have a common language for describing color: on paper, plastics, or fabric. The color scheme is even used by florists. (I once saw a sports car with a vanity plate that read, PMS 185. And the owner of the car was right.)

As an interesting historical note, Pantone began in the 1950s in New Jersey at M&J Levine Advertising (Mervin and Jesse Levine). The Pantone Matching System includes 1,114 spot colors plus metallic and fluorescent colors (as per Wikipedia).

As an interesting optical note, you might also want to Google L*a*b color, which is in fact the most accurate “device independent” description of color, presumably even more accurate than the PMS system (according to Wikipedia). But the Pantone Matching System is exceptionally comprehensive (i.e., it offers a wide color gamut). It is also a standard that is understood everywhere.

The Color of the Year

When I read about how the Pantone Color Institute selects a particular color (or colors) each year, it reminded me of how popes are chosen in Rome. (The description had that tone of gravitas.) Apparently “in a European capital, a secret meeting of representatives from various nations’ color standards groups” selects a color for the following year “after two days of presentations and debate.” (Wikipedia, Pantone).

The key underlying the color of choice is the association of colors to events, approaches to life, and emotions. (That is, the color reflects the current zeitgeist, the temper or tenor of a particular period in history.) For instance, the Pantone Color Institute, headed by Leatrice Eiseman, as noted earlier in this article, chose “Honeysuckle” in 2011 (PMS 18-2120), because “in times of stress, we need something to lift our spirits. Honeysuckle is a captivating, stimulating color that gets the adrenaline going—perfect to ward off the blues” (Wikipedia).

This also reminds me of a wine connoisseur speaking of the “notes” and the “finish” of a particular wine.

Here’s another quote from Leatrice Eiseman:

“I look for ascending color trends, colors that are being used in broader ways and broader context than before…. In this case, Radiant Orchid descends from the purple family, which is kind of a magical color that denotes creativity and innovation…. [The] backstory to purple is that it inspires confidence in your creativity, and we’re living in a world where that kind of creative innovation is greatly admired. In the world of color, purple is an attention-getter, and it has a meaning” (a comment by Leatrice Eiseman about Radiant Orchid, PMS 18-3224, the 2014 Color of the Year).

What We Can Learn from the Pantone Color of the Year

  1. Color has a huge effect on people. People often have an intensely personal connection to a color.
  2. Color influences people’s moods and emotions through print design, interior design, package design, product design, fashion design, etc. If you’re a designer of any kind whatsoever, it absolutely behooves you to study all aspects of color, from the optical to the artistic to the psychological.
  3. Warm colors (like red and orange) appear to advance toward the viewer. Cool colors, like green and blue, appear to recede.
  4. Each person sees a slightly different color when they look at the same item. Based on my reading, it appears that women see color better than men do (when I used to approve print book covers in-person, on press, I would often take a female colleague to the printer with me for this reason).
  5. Color is a function of light and the components of your eye. Therefore, red paint in a closed metal can is not red. It’s black. That’s why a red car looks grey at night.
  6. Some people get as specific about the attributes they pair with certain colors as other people get with their description of a fine wine. Therefore, if you’re choosing a color, or colors, for a corporate identity, it’s wise to get feedback from many, many people.
  7. Assume these pairings of colors and attributes will change from culture to culture, from nationality to nationality. When preparing colors for a corporate identity, show your work to diverse people from multiple groups and cultures.
  8. Realize that there are different standards used to define color. PMS is just one, granted the most popular. Once you tell a printer to use PMS 199, PMS 286, or whatever, that is a contract. He has to match it. (Granted, the color of the paper substrate will affect the look of the color.)
  9. Google the differences between color created on screen (with light) and color created with inks, paints, pencils, and markers. The former is called “additive color.” The latter is called “subtractive color.”
  10. RGB color (created with light) provides a larger color gamut (a huge range of different colors) than colors created with CMYK inks. The specific mixtures of inks comprising PMS colors can allow you to match significantly more hues than if you only used CMYK commercial printing inks.

Commercial Printing: Thoughts on Color Reproduction

Sunday, September 13th, 2020

Color is tricky. Not only does everyone see it slightly differently (from my reading and experience, apparently women see color slightly better than men). Not only does color look different depending on surrounding light (color seen in sunlight differs from color seen under fluorescent light, which differs from color seen under regular incandescent light). But color even varies from what you see on your computer monitor to what your commercial printing supplier can provide in a print job.

Wow. Why even try to learn about color? Because you can understand it and control it to a reasonable degree with a few key concepts and rules, and color enlivens a poster, banner, print book cover, and any other commercial printing project.

Your Monitor vs. the Printing Press

The first rule of thumb is that color on a computer monitor is created with light: red, green, and blue phosphors. In contrast, color on your commercial printing job is created with cyan, magenta, yellow, and black ink. Inkjet printers and laser printers also use the CMYK color space.

What you need to know about this is that the two color spaces (RGB and CMYK) do not match exactly. And what this means is that you can create colors within the RGB color space, on your computer monitor, that your custom printing supplier cannot match.

Therefore, here’s the first rule of thumb to use in your own graphic design work. Adjust your photos in the RGB color space (or the CMYK color space), but always convert the files to CMYK before placing your images in your page composition file (i.e., InDesign). This way, you will see any color shifts on your computer monitor before the job goes to press.

At this point I will suggest a caveat. Always request a physical proof for color work. It’s worth the extra cost from your commercial printing vendor to see a replica (for offset lithography) or exact copy (for digital printing) of the final printed output. This is because however close you come to matching colors on your computer screen to your expected final output, they will never match precisely.

That said, you can calibrate your monitor to make it more accurate. You may want to research this online. It usually involves extra software and hardware to analyze and then adjust your monitor. If you choose to do this, you will also want to consider the ambient light (room light). In printers’ prepress departments, there are no windows (no sunlight changing the perceived colors onscreen), and there are hoods on the monitors to keep any room light from changing the perceived color onscreen. Beyond this, often the walls of the prepress department (and the walls in the viewing booth where you can check press sheets in your printer’s plant) are painted a neutral gray for the same reason.

Two More Color Models: HSV and HSL

You may have a PMS swatch book from which you choose match colors for your print design work. Better yet, you may even have a PMS color to CMYK color “bridge” (a color swatch book that includes PMS colors alongside their closest possible 4-color process builds). You can use these, along with the color applications in InDesign and Photoshop, to tell your computer, your monitor, and your custom printing vendor exactly how your colors should look. Then your printer can send you a physical color proof (as opposed to a virtual, PDF screen proof) to show you how your final printed output will look.

But beyond the CMYK and RGB color models I have described, you may also want to research two more color models online. HSL (hue, saturation, lightness) and HSV (hue, saturation, value) color models are very similar. They are both representations of the RGB (red, green, blue) color space that creates color on your computer monitor. HSL is more a reflection of human color perception, whereas HSV represents how colored paints create color.

What makes these two color models useful to a graphic artist is that they help you visualize the hue (the named color, like red or blue) as a position on a circle of colors.

To illustrate this point, imagine this color circle as only a cross section of a cylinder (like a thin slice of a carrot cut out of the center of the root vegetable). At the top of the cylinder is the color white. At the bottom is the color black. Midway is gray.

If you pick a position on the circumference of the circle (let’s say a particular red), and you move up and down (lengthwise) on the surface of the cylinder (up to white or down to black), the particular red you have chosen will get darker or lighter. That quality of lightness or darkness is called “value” or “lightness,” depending on the model (HSV or HSL).

How is this relevant to a graphic designer? It models the transition of a specific color from a lighter to a darker version, and it helps you understand how this happens (by adding black or white). This is true whether you’re a printer or a painter.

The next quality has to do with the purity of a color. It is called “saturation” (the “S” in both the HSL and HSV models). It is also called “intensity.” It has to do with the vibrancy, purity, or amount of uncontaminated color, or hue, within a particular color you have chosen. (The purest color includes no gray; it is just the pure hue.)

If you go back to the model of a cylinder with the colors all around its circumference and white at the top and black at the bottom of the cylinder, you can imagine gray in the center between the black and the white. Imagine moving inward, from the outside of the cylinder to its core. (Or, again, you can picture this as a circle, a thin slice of the cylinder, like the thin slice of carrot mentioned above.)

All the way around the circle you see all the colors of the rainbow. These are the purest (most saturated) versions of the color. But as you move inward, the gray in the center contaminates the colors, makes them less pure, less intense. This is fine. You may want these more neutral colors. Certainly they show up in most if not all 4-color photographs, at least to some degree.

But if you are a graphic designer or a printer, the way these two color models can help you understand, analyze, and specify color is by demonstrating how color behaves, how you can add white or black to lighten or darken a hue, and how you can make a color more or less intense (i.e., saturated), by not adding (or adding) gray.

(As an aside, you can also tone down a color, or reduce its saturation, by adding the complement of that color to the mix. Complementary colors are exactly opposite one another on the color wheel: the outside surface of the cylinder noted above. For instance, you can desaturate red by adding green, or you can desaturate blue by adding orange.)

Other Color Models

There are many other color models. You may want to Google “CIELAB,” “Munsell,” and even “color models” in general. Some color models replace the cylinder I described above with two cones, one on top of the other, joined at the widest part with either end coming to a point (picture a child’s spinning top). Keep in mind that these are only approximations of the reality of color.

If you understand these color models at least somewhat, you will find them referenced in everything from the color picker in your word processing software to the more detailed versions in page layout and photo editing programs. Therefore, you will better understand why you need to specify numerical values to define these colors, or how you can change a color by dragging a pointer over a rainbow colored circle in a graphics program.

But before I stop, I want to describe one final color model noted above. CIELAB, often known as LAB or more specifically L*a*b. This model is useful when you’re touching up color photos in Photoshop because it separates the value (light vs. dark) of a photo from its color information. The “L” stands for “lightness,” while the “a” and “b” channels represent the “green vs. red” component of the color and the “blue vs. yellow” component of the color respectively.

What makes this useful to a designer is that you can adjust the black component of the photo without altering the color, in order to sharpen the image, remove noise (a grainy appearance in a photo), and correct other image flaws. Of course, it is important to translate the image back to RGB and then to CMYK (or directly to CMYK) before transmitting your job to the printer.

What You Can Learn from This Discussion

This is highly conceptual material. It will probably give you a headache. So here are a few take-aways to consider.

  1. Color on the monitor (created with light) is defined within the RGB (red/green/blue) color space.
  2. Color created with ink or toner is defined within the CMYK (cyan/magenta/yellow/black) color space.
  3. These two color spaces do not exactly match. CMYK commercial printing cannot approximate all RGB colors you see on your monitor.
  4. Therefore, check your images in CMYK and hand them off to your printer (within the InDesign file) in CMYK format.
  5. If you study other color models, you can learn to alter color to make it lighter or darker, more saturated or less saturated.
  6. If you study (and use) the L*a*b color space, you may find it much easier to fix color casts, sharpen images, and reduce noise in photos than by using the traditional curves and levels commands in the CMYK or RGB color spaces.
  7. Always convert images to CMYK, no matter what color space you start with.

Custom Printing: Useful Thoughts on Choosing Color

Monday, June 9th, 2014

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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.


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