Prepress 101: Spot Colors And How They Can Be Used

In printing, there are process colors — cyan, magenta, yellow, and black — and then there are spot colors. While process colors can make up most tones, including those in the Energy Dots example here, large areas of a single tone can be very obvious if they mismatch between print runs, or between printing companies. To ensure a uniform look across a multiple runs, or across a brand of multiple products, spot colors may be used.

Nutra-EnergyDots_tnSpot colors are pre-formulated inks. Instead of cyan and yellow plates creating the green on press, a green ink is prepared ahead of time, mixed to the correct tone, and loaded into the press as its own separate color. Instead of magenta and yellow forming the red, a specific red mix is prepared as its own color.

You might think of process colors as the colors a painter might mix carefully in his palette and apply to the fine details of his painting, whereas spot colors are more like the paint you choose from a swatch book when painting a room. Spot colors are meant to ensure consistency across large solid areas, multiple print runs, and entire brands. Being separate colors from the four-color process also means that they are unaffected when a pressman adjusts the process colors, such as when tuning the color of a photo. Also like choosing a paint color from a swatch book, spot colors are often chosen from a book of Pantone swatches. These Dragon Ball Z cartons make a prime example:


Here, the images, characters, and sky are all built from process colors, but the Dragon Ball Z logo is a prime candidate for spot colors. This way, as the pressman adjusts the process colors to optimize the tones in the image, the logo would remain unaffected, and would match other products of this brand, which will likely end up sitting right next to these cartons on a shelf.

But in an art file, spot colors are used for more than inks. They are often used to indicate the technical aspects of a file. The structure, or die line, should always be a spot color, as well as technical type such as dimensions. But be careful — these technical elements should always be set to overprint! If they aren’t, they will “knock out” the inks behind them, resulting in white unprinted areas all over the package in the shape of dimensions and die lines. (See our post on trapping and overprinting for more information.)

Spot colors are also used to indicate spot coating areas, such as using a gloss coating to highlight a logo in a design that gets matte coating everywhere else. They are also the preferred method for indicating emboss areas, including multi-level embossing. Again, these should always be set to overprint so that they don’t block out the art they’re placed on.

It is possible to go overboard with dozens of spot colors, which cannot be printed as such without an adverse effect on time and cost (as they would require multiple passes through the press), but when used strategically, spot colors can create a consistent look across an entire range of products, bringing your packaging to the next level and strengthening your brand image.

Prepress 101: Trapping and Overprinting

As a sheet runs through a printing press, being passed from unit to unit, it shifts. It doesn’t shift around much — in fact, the amount is barely even measurable, often just a fraction of a millimeter — but it does move, especially when flying through the press at high speed. This is simply a physical hurdle that must be compensated for when the art is being prepared. If this is not dealt with, the natural shifting in the press creates haloes and gaps where the unprinted stock peeks through.

Intended appearance: magenta star on cyan background, no overlap.
Printed result with no trapping. White peeks through when registration shifts.

Click the images to see larger.

Compensating for these shifts involves extending images and colors by a mere three thousandths of an inch (8 hundredths of a millimeter), an amount invisible to the naked eye. This microscopic overlap of color compensates for the shifting of the sheet, completing an illusion of two colors butting up to each other and appearing to touch without overlapping. That 0.003-inch overlap is called a trap.

Printed result with trapping. Full ink coverage regardless of shift. Overlap becomes invisible to the naked eye.

As small as 0.003 inches may sound, however, it makes up the majority of the size of thin type — for example, legal fine print. Suppose that a paragraph of cyan fine print is placed on a yellow background. This would be a problem for a few reasons.

Intended appearance: cyan type on yellow background.
Intended appearance: cyan type on yellow background.

First, the trap (0.003 inches all around both sides of each letter) would make up the majority of the type, creating significant overlap of the cyan and yellow, thus making the type appear green. Whoops.

Appearance after attempting to trap. Yellow trapping into cyan makes all type appear green.
Appearance after attempting to trap. Yellow trapping into cyan makes all type appear green.

But a more common example is black type on a background.


Whether that background is a photo, a gradient, or a solid color, the problem ends up being the same. Fine print — in fact, most type — is ultimately too thin to trap. But now what? If the type can’t be trapped, the shifting of the sheet will produce haloes of white around the letters unless the black type falls exactly into the space left for it in all three of the other plates — which simply will not happen because the sheet will shift between print units. Here are the four images in such an example:


And a close-up of the (simulated) resulting sheet after running through the press:

White peeks through and magenta registration can be seen when the black type does not overprint.
White peeks through and magenta registration can be seen when the black type does not overprint.

Obviously, the “Launch Day” type is very large and thick lettering, and could easily be trapped if we wanted to. But for all black (and small) type, the solution is overprinting. Setting the black type to overprint means that the cyan, magenta, and yellow will not leave a space for the black. They will print their images normally, and the black type goes on top of it. The result?


Crisp, smooth type over a pleasant background. No peeking white, no registration issues.

These are just some of the nuts-and-bolts details that our prepress team obsesses over, day in and day out. We hope the next time you need quality, professional printing, you’ll allow us to take care of these details for you.