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When to Use a Spot Color in Printing

When your job requires color, you have two options: four-color process and match colors. Four-color process work involves the printing of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black halftones, one over the other, at slightly different angles to simulate the full color gamut. For a photograph, this usually works well.

Sometimes, however, the four process colors don’t capture the intensity or specific color you want in a certain location within a photo. In cases like these, you can add a “touch plate” of a fifth color (called a match color) to accentuate specific areas. (A match color -- Trumatch, Pantone or PMS, Focaltone, Toyo, etc. -- is created from other colors combined to make a homogeneous mixture, in the same way that you might mix flour and baking powder when baking. Once mixed for your printer, your match ink is a single color, unlike the screens of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black laid over one another to create four-color work.) Let’s say you’re printing a photo of a bouquet of flowers, for instance, and you want the rich reds to stand out dramatically. In this case, you might add a touch plate of a fifth color, a PMS red, to bring out the red areas within the flowers. The color will only print in a few areas. It may be subtle, but quite effective.

Another instance where you might want to use a match color is when your project includes your company logo. Let’s say you’re printing a four-color brochure that includes several full-color photos, some text, and your company logo. It’s quite possible that you could use the four process colors and get a perfectly acceptable product. (To get a preview of what the finished product will look like, you can check a Pantone process-color to match-color swatchbook, which shows the nearest possible process color build percentages used to duplicate a PMS color.)

But let’s say your company logo is made up of colors that cannot be adequately represented within the process color gamut.

Suppose you want to build a particular red that matches the PMS 199 of your logo, but it appears a little muddy. Or you want to build a particular blue that matches the PMS 286 of your logo, but it is a little drab when compared with the actual Pantone colors the designer of your logo had in mind. Or, worse, what if there is a variation on press, so that in the course of the press run the colors of your logo shift slightly away from the colors you expect? Perhaps the printer makes a judgment call to bring the flesh tones in the company photos back in line, and the colors in your logo shift dramatically in the process. What can you do?

Hopefully, your job is already on a five- or six-color press. If so, your incremental cost to add an extra match color should not be that high, and your control over the colors in your company logo will improve significantly. If your printer is running the job on a four-color press, however, adding a match color will be considerably more expensive. It will require taking the job off press after printing the four process colors, washing up the press, and then running the job through the press again to print the match color once the process inks have dried. In this case, you might want to stick with the four-color process option and skip the extra PMS color to avoid a large price increase. The good news is that more and more printers have multiple-unit presses (five-, six-, or even eight-unit presses) that will allow the cheap addition of match colors. It would be prudent to discuss these various scenarios with your prospective printers before deciding which printer to use.

Multiple Estimates: Interpreting & Choosing Appropriate Print Vendor

I recently received twelve bids on a job I solicited through the Printing Industry Exchange website. Being of a statistical bent, I noticed the grouping of prices. Two were about the same and very low. Two were almost double the amount of the first two bids. The remaining bids were in the middle, with some almost identical. What can be learned from this?

When you receive bids from multiple vendors, don’t assume all printers are bidding on the same specs. Printers often do not read specifications carefully. Some make mistakes, and some leave out important information such as bleeds or special coatings that can dramatically affect the final price. They may even bid on the wrong press run.

Some have equipment that exactly matches your needs (for example, you have a long-run four-color book that needs to be printed on a heat-set web press, but one of your vendors has estimated the job on a sheet-fed press). To save money, it’s almost always best to choose a vendor with appropriate equipment, although this might involve the risk of trying out a new printer.

Some of your vendors may be in parts of the country where labor and materials are less expensive than in your area. Choosing to print in a distant location does, however, bring up the issue of freight costs, which will be more expensive when you contract with vendors a long distance away. Also, in such cases, you must consider how (or whether) you will attend a press check. In some cases, the savings would more than compensate for the necessary flight and hotel stay.

In general, if you extend your reach beyond a few vendors with whom you have developed relationships, make sure you compare the bids. Compare them to your project specifications and to each other. Keep in mind that neither the most expensive nor the least may be the best choice. Your best vendor will have the appropriate equipment for your job, samples you like, stellar references, and a fair price. When you reach out to a new vendor to serve your operation, go the extra mile to request multiple samples and reliable references. You may save your job from going ”south.”


[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He 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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