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Four color logos

4 color process logos & CMYK design. More colors, infinitely adaptable

Exploded view CMYK-logo
While monitors use RGB (Red Green Blue) to preview full-color images, traditional printing uses CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black) also known as four color process printing (or simply four color or full color). In this method of printing, the design is set up so that it uses percentages of the 4 base inks listed.

Four color process printing

When these varying amounts of the 4 base inks are printed one over the other, the resulting variations will print as new colors. Rather than having the color tones premixed like that with spot color logos , we are basically having the inks mixed ‘on the fly’ on the press instead. Four color reproduction is generally more expensive than spot colors and color accuracy is largely dependent on the skill and professionalism of the shop printing your material. It should be noted that the color created by 4 color process printing are not solid colors at all, but rather a series of dots (see main image right). This is most noticeable in the photographs reproduced in your local newspaper. Four color reproduction can utilize either vector based or pixel based versions of your logo (as long as the image has adequate resolution).

The same logo with spot and four color setups

Pros of four color process logos

Unlimited colors & choices. For all intents and purposes, there are no limitations to the colors you can have built into your new company logo. Unlike spot color logos which have to use tones and screens to create the effect of additional colors, process logos can use any color that the designer or client desires.

Special FX friendly. While not recommended for the primary version of your corporate logo, there will be the occasion that you’ll want to throw some special FX at your logo. Lens flares, drop shadows, glows, etc. Most of these special FX filters require pixel based images to work, and pixel based images generally require four color process to print (it should be noted here that many special FX also require an RGB palette to work, and when converted without any color correction can appear dull and lifeless when printed as CMYK. Your designer will help you if you choose to get this route).

Adaptable in print. When adding your logo to a printed piece that is to be printed using 4 color process, it’s generally just a matter of slapping your logo into the artwork and you’re done, whereas logos created in spot color can require color correction before hand.

Cons of four color process logos

Usage restrictions. Certain uses of your logo may require heavy-duty conversions or the employment of logo repair services in order to work including (but not limited to) vinyl plotter signage, some silk-screen applications, spot color reproduction, etc. While there are workarounds for most of these uses (signage, for example can be printed as digital output, and some T-shirt printers do offer 4 color process silk-screening). It’s always better to begin any project with an eye on future uses of the logo so that you don’t paint yourself into a corner.

More expensive. The reproduction of 4 color process material is generally more expensive that spot color due, quite simply, to the additional printing steps and material required. There are exceptions – discount online printers for example – as they tend to ‘gang’ four color material together. However, the money you’ll save with this type of printing is often overshadowed by the lack of quality. Overall, look to spending a premium when printing your marketing material, including the business staples like letterheads and business card design. You’ll have to decide whether the ah-ha factor is worth the additional expense.

Color matching can be ‘iffy’. Unlike spot color reproduction, which uses premixed inks, 4 color process printing occurs on the press. Accordingly, the accuracy of color is, to a certain degree, left in the hands of the press operator, and depends on the ink densities of other jobs being printed at the same time. This factor is negated somewhat by the fact that it’s much easier to obtain an accurate press proof of a 4 color print job, while proofs of spot color work is generally a ‘best guess’.

Tips for printing material with four color logos

Once you’ve finished having your logo developed, stationery design completed and your brochure laid out, it ‘s now on to getting them printed. Many of you will choose to work directly with a local printer – especially if you’re a ‘do it yourself logo design‘ dabbler, but may be new to working with offset printers and some of the industry jargon involved. Here’s a few pointers on working with your printer with a 4 color process printing project, and how to help insure there’s no surprises when your new letterheads, business cards and brochure are delivered.

If your printer is using a ‘gang run’ – grouping your job with a number of other pieces on a large sheet – expect varying colors from run to run. This type of printing is designed to be cheap, not precise, and you’re not paying for exacting color standards. Be realistic in your expectations. This is particularly true of discount printers you’ll find online. If they require that you supply artwork in pixel based formats (.tif, .jpg, etc) you can be assured that this is how your project is being handled. It is not recommended for anything other than ‘quick and dirty’ printing, but if pricing is your major concern, these services provide an adequate alternative to high quality printers. Our recommendation? Use quality printers for your staples – letterhead, business card, etc – while utilizing discount online printing for your throwaways – fliers, sale sheets, etc. The level of quality you’re after will also depend on your market segment. If you’re sending material to Fortune 500 level companies – the higher the quality the better. If you’re advertising cut-rate pricing on consumer goods, a lower level of quality will suffice.

If you’re printing a 4 color process project, and are also using pixel based images, insure that the digital files you’re supplying your printer are in high enough resolution. While some services will accept images as low as 150 DPI, it’s recommended that your digital files are no lower than 266 DPI (300 DPI and higher for high-quality glossy reproduction). If your images are in a low or even medium resolution, you run the risk of ending up with ‘blurry’ images in your printed piece.

Always ask for a ‘press proof’ of your job. Most proofing systems are set up for CMYK and 4 colour process so you’ll be able to get a fairly accurate ‘first peek’ of your job as it will end up. Getting a press proof before hand also allows you to check for typos and spelling errors.

Colors may not match exactly if you attempt to print spot color artwork as a CMYK (four color process) job. Many printers will simply change the colors to CMYK in your original files – this is haphazard at best. There’s a Pantone Spot to Process Formula book that allows you to choose CMYK equivalents to your spot colors. Use that beforehand, or ask an experienced designer to do it for you. Keep in mind that certain spot colors will not convert exactly and may not match material that you’ve previously printed as spot color. For a more detailed look at file formats and their applications see our logo design tutorial and technical library.

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