Digital & Offset Printing Terms: Spot vs. Process Color

Offset printing can seem like a bit of a mystery, primarily because few people outside the industry have been exposed to the inner workings of this process. Digital printing may be a little more familiar, because most everyone has seen digital printing in action, either at the office or on their home printer.

offset printing terms

Still, when we use terms like spot color and process color, many of our clients aren’t exactly sure what we mean. And even after we explain these somewhat perplexing concepts, it still may not be too clear.

But when you prepare your electronic files for either digital or offset printing, these concepts may become relevant.

What Is Spot Color Printing?

Spot colors, also known as solid colors, are created by pre-mixing inks to get the precise shade you need, typically using the Pantone matching system. This is the approach typically used for logos and other items that require an accurate tone match.

This approach is used in offset printing, with each spot color requiring its own plate, and in screen printing applications.

This approach can also be combined with process color. If you want to use spot color alone, you may have to limit the job to four or fewer spot colors.

What Is Process Color Printing?

Although you may not recognize this term, you probably have heard of CMYK, which is the basis of process — also known as 4-color — printing.

CMYK stands for cyan, magenta, yellow and black*. Any given color is created on the page by laying down overlapping layers of dots of each of the first three colors (CMY). Black is then added to create shadows and image details.

Digital printers use process colors; however, they can also be used in offset printing.

*The “K” doesn’t technically stand for black; it stands for “key plate,” which is the plate of a printing press that carries the black ink. 

Do You Need to Know the Difference Between Process and Spot Color?

When you send a project to your printing company, you will have to choose between digital and offset printing. Offset printing is the only way to use spot colors.

If you opt for digital, your colors will be created using the process color approach. Your electronic files, if they were created using the RGB standard (used to create colors on a digital screen like a computer monitor), must be converted to CMYK.

Although graphic designers understand the intricacies of all of this, many printing clients do not. However, your printing company can help you navigate this confusing issue. Unless you have specific needs for color matching, most of your projects can be printed to what the industry calls a “pleasing color standard.” This means that, although the colors may not be a precise match to what you print out on your own printer (or what you see on your screen), the colors are a close match.

The paper or cardstock you select for your project can also influence how the final images look, even if you have spot color(s).

If you need help determining what type of electronic files are required for your digital or offset printing job, contact Sun Print Solutions today. We are based in Utah, but assist clients across the country. Give us a call today for help with all your digital and offset printing needs.


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