Discover Spot Coloring And Other Printing Terms

In the printing industry, the most common form of print is called 4 Color Process, or CMYK. This is where four colors (cyan, magenta, yellow and key black) are all mixed together, to give all the colors that are needed. Commercial and domestic printing equipment all use this color system, from a large digital press to your desktop printer. Almost every print run such as printed leaflets and PVC banners, all use the CMYK system.

What Is Spot Color?

Using spot color inks is an alternative to CMYK (cyan magenta yellow and black) printing. A spot color is where a pre-mixed ink (such as a spot color green) is used rather than a mix of yellow and blue as you would in CMYK printing. Spot color process inks can be many different colors, and also include specialist inks such as metallics, fluorescents and clear varnishes. 

litho printing

What Printing Uses Spot Colors?

For the most part, litho printing is the only technique that uses spot colors regularly. Litho printing makes use of printing plates for each of the colors that are used, and the inks are laid onto the paper in turn. In 4-color process, there are plates for each of the CMYK, but it is just as easy to make plates that use spot colors, in addition to (or instead of) the 4 CMYK colors. 

How Do You Use Spot Color?

We are often asked 'What is the purpose of a spot color?' and 'how is a spot color used?'

Pantone spot color printing is generally used for two reasons – cost-effectiveness and color matching to a specific color code. You should use spot color printing for consistency, particularly on important brand elements like logos on your printed brochures. Otherwise, you could end up with a very slight, but noticeable difference in the color of your logo.


letterhead with orange branding


If you want to print letterheads that are black and white with an orange logo, using the CMYK 4-color process you would have to make printing plates for each of the 4 CMYK colors to print the job. The print machine would use ‘K’ ink to make the black, and then use a mix of C, M, and Y to create the orange color. 

If you use spot process colors you can save money – just make one plate for the black text and another plate that uses a pre-mixed Pantone spot color red. Two printing plates and two inks, instead of four printing plates and four inks. This saves setup time and the cost of materials. 


Color Matching

If there’s a specific spot printing color that you have as part of your company branding (like B&Q Orange) you’ll want that orange color to print the same every time, regardless of which print company produces an item for you, or which machine they use.

If you specify a particular spot color, you have a much higher chance of getting a consistent orange tone across all of your printed matter. Spot colors are often catalogued in a system, with the most popular in the USA and UK being the Pantone Matching System (more about that in a moment).

If you’re not using spot color systems, you may find that your company color comes out a little different on different machines (CMYK colors can vary a tad) and perhaps don’t have the vibrancy of the color you’ve selected – not all spot colors can accurately be represented as a CMYK mix as they are too bright/vibrant. 

lady asking when

What Are Pantones And The Pantone Matching System?

In the USA and UK, the Pantone Matching System is the most popular catalogue of spot colors. It’s effectively a color swatch that shows all of the colors (1000+) and supplies codes for each to allow for easy identification.

The Pantone system standardises the ink recipes for all of these colors, made up of a base stock of 13 vibrant pigment colors, and black.

This means that a Pantone ink on a printing press on one side of the world should match exactly with the same color on the other side of the world, as both will follow exactly the same recipe.