Setting up Color for Printing

If you plan to have something professionally printed (and you really should if the quantities are more than 100) then understanding how to set up and work with color in your digital files is so very important. Let me illustrate this with a story from my first year of designing:

I had designed a fabulous brochure for the company I was interning for. It was my first design that was going to be printed and used and I was so excited to send my InDesign files to the printer. I attached all of my files to an email, hit send and went home for the evening. The next morning I get a response from the printer that the color is set up wrong and needs to be CMYK. That was all the feedback I got. I had never worked with a printer before and had no idea what he was talking about. After doing some internet research I thought I had figured out the problem. I converted the image mode of all of my images, reattached the files and sent it back to the printer. Feeling like I had learned a valuable lesson, I packed up for the day. The next morning I came back to another email from the printer. I had fixed the images, but the text was wrong. Again, not knowing what he meant I did some internet research and learned that text has to be set to 100% K (or solid black). It took me the better part of the day to go through every piece of my document and make the adjustments. The file was finally ready, but my mistakes had pushed the timeline 2 full days behind and the brochures would arrive 2 days later than they were scheduled to.

Two lessons I learned from this experience: First, the printer could have been a bit more helpful in giving me direction. Had he been more specific the first time and told me that the images and the text were an issue I could have saved a full day of work and received the brochures only 1 day late. Secondly, if I had understood how to work with color before I started the design I would have saved myself two whole days of unnecessary work.

Overview of Offset Printing

One of the best experiences I had early on was designing for a print shop. Unlike the printer I worked with during my previous experience, the owner of this print shop spent a day with me showing me how the presses worked and explaining what I needed to know up front so that my design files would come out the way I intended to. We will go into more detail about printing options a future post, but for now I want to focus more on how to specifically set up color in InDesign.
Offset printing is the primary method of professional printing. It allows for many copies to be made very quickly. This type of printing is also called four color process because full color artwork is broken down into four different colors and those color separations are each applied to one of four plates. The printing presses overlay those plates to form one, complete color image.

CMYK

The four colors used in printing are cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. The acronym used for this type of printing is CMYK. The K stands for key. The black plate is used to key the others, or set the alignment by. When you create a new document in InDesign the color mode is set to CMYK, but it is also easy for you to override those settings while working with the color palette. It is important to pay attention when choosing and setting colors so that you are mindful to only use CMYK colors.

When you use the color palette in InDesign it will be clear what type of color you are using. If there are three boxes for value, it is RGB. If there are 4 boxes for values it is CMYK. In the two images below the same color is shown, but on the left RGB color is used and on the right CMYK color is used.

If you are choosing a color and notice that it is in RGB it is very easy to change to CMYK. In the upper right corner of the color palette there is a down arrow with a menu icon. If you click on that icon you will get options to switch between CMYK, RGB, and Lab color modes.

Changing color options to CMYK

Changing color options to CMYK

Spot Color

Sometimes you may have a limited budget and only be able to print in one or two colors. If you decided that you were only going to use black and red for your document you might naturally just set it up with CMYK colors of black and red. It would definitely appear as if it were set up in two colors, but when the printer outputs that file it is still going to render on four different plates. This is where spot color comes in.

You may have heard the acronym PMS. PMS stands for the Pantone Matching System and is the industry standard for spot colors. What makes PMS colors different is that each color you choose from a book of colors or through InDesign is an actual ink mixed to that color. If you wanted to print in red, traditional offset printing would mix together different tints of cyan, magenta, yellow and black to form the red you wanted. The presses would use four different printing plates to combine and form the color red. If you wanted to do a red PMS spot color there would be no mixture and the press would use only one plate to apply the red ink.

Spot colors are really necessary when working in one or two color, but can also be helpful when printing for a brand that has a specific color in its logo. One of my former employers had a logo with a very odd shade of purple. It was somewhere between a blue and a purple and no matter how we set it up in CMYK it always came back a slightly different shade. When we had a really big or important print job we would always use a spot color so that the purple was exactly as it was intended to be.

If you want to use a spot color it is as easy as switching between RGB and CMYK. Because PMS colors are not a mixtures of shades you can’t work with them in the color palette. You must use the swatches palette to choose and switch between PMS colors. If you double-click on an existing swatch, or use the icon second from the bottom right to create a new swatch, you will get an options panel. The important element here is the Color Type selector. Initially the swatch is set to process color and you see the familiar CMYK breakdown.

CMYK Swatch

CMYK Swatch

If you click on the Color Type drop-down box you can change to spot color. This still doesn’t adjust the CMYK value. You also need to change the color mode to one of the PMS libraries. There are several different library options, but the biggest deciding factor is whether you plan to print your pieces with a matte or glossy finish. Typically if you plan on a glossy finish you want to use a coated color. The coating will give it the right sheen. Conversely, if you plan on a matte finish then you want to use an uncoated color that doesn’t have a sheen.

PMS Libraries

PMS Libraries

After you choose a library the available colors within that library will show up. You can scroll through and find the right color for your project. Once you find the right color, hit the OK button and your new spot color swatch will be read for you to use.

PMS Swatches

PMS Swatches

 

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