Showcasing the difference between spot color and process color


Learn the difference between spot color and process color.

Make the right choice for your next color printing job with these tips from a professional graphic designer.    

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Color can be complicated.

It’s important to choose a printing method that makes your project look as good in real life as it does on your computer screen, whether you’re printing a company logo or a piece of digital artwork. It can be hard to tell whether spot color or process color is the right approach for your print job, but both methods have distinct benefits and drawbacks depending on the nature of what you want to print. 

What is spot color?

Spot colors are solid colors created using a specific premixed ink, usually based on Pantone Matching System (PMS) colors. Pantone colors are standardized, and each one is assigned an individual number and name, which designers and printers in different locations can use to easily identify the same exact color. Spot colors are bold and vibrant, but if you’re offset printing your design, the printer will probably charge you more for the job. 

Offset printing

Despite advancements in digital printing, offset printing has been the de facto method of the commercial printing industry for more than 100 years. Offset printing uses metal plates covered in ink to transfer images onto paper. Printing in black and white only takes one plate, but each additional color you use requires an additional plate. The more plates your job uses, the more expensive it is to print. 

What is process color?

Process color uses four ink colors — cyan, magenta, yellow, and black — printed as millions of tiny, overlapping dots that blend together to create the full color spectrum. Also known as the CMYK process, this method of printing saves money by limiting the number of printing plates required for a job to four. But there are some limitations to the specific colors that CMYK inks can create.

Process color is made up of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black

Which method is right for me?

“Each type of printing has its own benefits,” says illustrator and graphic design artist James Weinberg. “Process colors are best for photographic reproduction, or something that has a lot of shading and nuance in it. Spot color lends itself to more of a graphic approach. When you’re doing a t-shirt, the graphics should be in spot color because you have to isolate each color. And for the most part, t-shirts are done by screen printing.”

Screen printing

In screen printing, you lay a mesh screen across the surface you want your design to appear on, then coat it with color ink using a squeegee. The ink flows through the mesh to contact the surface, except where the mesh holes are blocked by a stencil. Then you repeat this process with more screens, stencils, and ink colors until the image has been completed.


“Generally, screen printing is when you want to use spot color, and offset is when you use process,” Weinberg recommends.  

Making a screen print of a graphic with spot color

How spot and process color can work together.

For most printing jobs you’ll use either spot color or process color. But sometimes it’s necessary or beneficial to use both methods. For example, many corporate logos have their own specific Pantone colors, like Starbucks’s green or the red of the McDonald’s sign, which can’t be created using CMYK colors. “In that case, you’d use a four-color process plus a Pantone spot color,” Weinberg explains.


There can also be artistic advantages to using both methods. For example, some spot colors can be overlaid on one another to create new colors when they blend. “Spot colors like magenta and cyan have a really interesting overlap effect to create this cool purple that I use in a lot of the illustrations I do,” Weinberg says.  

How to create print-friendly images.

When you’re designing your image, you can take steps to save yourself some stress when the time comes to print.


“If I’m doing a print, it’s going to be just three colors. That creates a little structure around what I’m thinking,” Weinberg says. “The interplay of warm and cool is really important, and make sure the colors all have good contrast.” Making careful choices about the number of colors you use will help keep the print costs of your project under control.


It can also be helpful to make swatches, samples of the mixed-together colors you plan to use in your piece. Using a program like Adobe Photoshop, you can create swatches to preview how colors will look using the CMYK process and tweak them so you can be sure your design looks as good on the page as it does on your screen.

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