How to choose a logo colour that will print (or, should I use a spot colour?)

​There are a lot of articles out there that talk about the psychology of colours and the cultural significance of different colours. Colours do have cultural significance that each society places on them, that gives additional meaning to some colours based on context. Yellow can mean happiness in one context, and cowardice in another. Red can mean anger in the west, and a new beginning in China. These cultural meanings are definitely worth considering when designing a logo. Designers are very good at helping you choose a colour from a macro perspective, but you will ultimately have to choose a specific colour – an exact tone and hue – for your logo. When a company like Coke prints its bottle labels, it doesn’t order ‘red’: it has a specific CMYK value (which we explain below) for its particular shade of red, so it is the same every time.

Choosing the specific colour is where a printer can help you – someone with ink on their hands who understands the capabilities of print and the challenges that come with certain colours. It is entirely possible that a colour that looked great on screen will cause you headaches, disappointment, inconsistent branding and additional cost in your printing. Poor colour choices, from a print production perspective, can cause these problems from day one, and the longer you use them, the harder and more expensive they are to maintain and to eventually fix.

Here are some tips to keep in mind when choosing a corporate colour.

Choose a colour from within the CMYK colour gamut

CMYK stands for Cyan (blue), Magenta (pink), Yellow (yellow), Key (which is now taken to mean black).

Most printing these days is done using a CMYK system. Not all printing – but the cost-effective, easy-to-access kind is always CMYK printing. If you choose your colours from within this gamut, you will never have a problem having your corporate colour printed, no matter what you are having printed. You will need to be careful in the early design stages because the CMYK colour gamut is smaller than the RGB colour gamut, meaning your computer screen is capable of producing colours that CMYK printing simply cannot produce.

CMYK printing works by laying down tiny combination of dots of one of those four colours, next to and over each other in layers, creating the illusion of a different colour. This kind of colour is called a subtractive colour because it reflects light, where an RGB colour is an additive colour, because it emits light. This is the big difference between the two kinds of colour, and why RGB is capable of producing so many more and brighter colours.

What CMYK colours are the brightest?

The biggest difference between CMYK and RGB colours is how bright and vivid RGB can be. CMYK colours, in comparison, look dull and subdued. If you do want a bright colour, then generally speaking, the fewer of the component CMYK colours you use, the brighter and richer final colour will be. You can print a much brighter pink or yellow, for example, than you can a green or red. The more of the component colours involved, the more subdued the colour becomes.

The Pantone Matching System

Printers around the world all refer to the Pantone Colour Matching System, or PMS, colours. There are thousands of colours that have been defined with CMYK values, been given names, and printed onto a Pantone colour swatch. Any printer worth his or her ink has this swatch tucked away in the shop somewhere. If you choose a PMS colour for your logo, then no matter where you get your stuff printed, what you get back will always meet your expectations. Every piece of professional printing software I’ve ever used has had the Pantone system programmed into it. Design software from Adobe and Corel will have access to this as well. Keep in mind that you need to lay your eyes on an actual physical expression of the colour. As I’ve mentioned above, CMYK and RGB colours are fundamentally different, and ultimately you will be judging this colour as ink on the page. So you need to see it as ink on the page when you are choosing it.

Talk to your graphic designer, they should have a Pantone swatch you can look at. Failing that go to your local print shop and ask to see their Pantone swatch. If they don’t have one, or won’t let you look, then you don’t want to work with them anyway.

The main thing is, you need a physical sample. On-screen is worthless when it comes to printing.

But I don’t like the CMYK Pantone colours!

It is entirely possible that you don’t like any of the colours within the CMYK gamut. Tiffany Blue is an easy example of a colour that is outside of the CMYK gamut, used by the jewellery company Tiffany. These colours can still be achieved by a printer, but it needs to be done using a process called spot colour. Spot colour means that a special batch of ink is mixed that is the specific colour, and then this colour is run separately. A four-colour (CMYK) print job can become a five-colour (C+M+Y+K+spot) print job. The implications of this, though, are that your print production options are seriously limited and the cost will significantly increase. Many print shops are not capable of producing spot colours, and many of the shops that do have the mechanical capability won’t do so because of the difficulty and the machine down-time associated with changing the inks over. This leaves you with the shops that can do it, who will be happy to charge you what it costs (read: it’s expensive!) – all those super-cheap prices you see around for business cards and stationery? They no longer apply to you.

Still, if you’ve got the budget or the scale that allows you to afford it, using a unique colour is a marketing strategy that has been used successfully in the past. You can create and use a colour that no-one else can easily copy, and build exclusivity around that colour and your brand. Eventually you might create the next Tiffany blue.

Daniel Edwards

Owner at Posterboy Printing
Giving life to a brand's visual innovation, messages, and values is what caused me to start Posterboy Printing in 2006. Now it is a business that is regarded as being one of the most responsive, versatile and dependable print suppliers for retail chains, and visual merchandisers.

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