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Spot Color Logos

Logos designed using PANTONE spot colors

The concept of spot color logos is actually quite simple. Using premixed ink swatches (such as the PANTONE Matching System), a designer is able to select the exact color tones desired in any digital artwork. This is very similar to using color swatches of paint at the local hardware store in order to select the color of your wall at home. And just like the paint swatches at the hardware store, spot colors have a unique numeric code – a PMS number, followed by a letter – C (for use on coated or ‘shiny’ stock) and U (for use on uncoated or matte finish stock.) Using these color swatches and numbers, your printer will take the file, and output a metal plate for each color (usually, branded assets printed in spot color feature two color logos though there are limited exceptions.)

Spot Color Logo Exploded View

These plates are applied to the press, inked up with the appropriate color, and then the paper is run though it, with one impression for each color. What comes out at the other side is your completed image. Spot color reproduction can be more economical than that featuring a four color process logo (though this is not absolute due to budget shops “gang printing” everything as full color) and as the ink colors are based on exact matching formulas, color accuracy and control are optimal. Using PANTONE numbers in your logo – even one color logos – has the added advantage of being ‘industry standard’ and anyone working on future projects will be able to match the colors exactly, even without having access to the original artwork. Spot colors are also more flexible than you’d think. When working with your logo, your designer can still add the ‘appearance’ of full color by adding screens and tones of a particular spot. If handled correctly, this shouldn’t be a concern – it will not increase the reproduction costs as this method uses screens of the ink color you’re already using.

Pros of spot color logos.

Cheaper to use: Using spot colors in your logo is generally cheaper in the long run. Spot color printing usually costs less – for the simple reason that the paper requires 1/2 the number of impressions as four color process, and can be printed on a smaller sized press. Again, this is not as absolute as it once was and generally only applies to smaller print shops.

Color accuracy: We’ve already discussed how color accuracy is a nice feature of spot colors. It’s probably worthwhile to note that there are some exceptions, namely the fact that some colors will vary significantly between the coated and uncoated versions. If color matching is critical, you may have to set up two press runs, using two sets of inks – coated and uncoated – that have been adjusted to match. This is particularly significant in the printing of your stationery design, where many people opt for glossy (coated) business cards while their letterhead remains matte (uncoated.) This is not the case will all colors, and some colors shift more than others (yellows and oranges which require the reflectivity of the paper to create their hues are particularly sensitive.) There’s a couple of workarounds for this issue – convert everything to four color process, or use matte business cards as well. Unfortunately, not all spot colors translate 100% accurately into four color process colors so we need to be very careful when changing colors from one space to another.

Cons of spot color logos.

Requires a vector based version of your logo: While not exactly a ‘con’ (vector versions of your logo are far better for reproduction) and this shouldn’t be an issue as long as you have all the correct formats of your logo accessible. The version you’re looking for is a vector based .eps (Encapsulated Postscript) or .ai (Adobe Illustrator). This does become a very big ‘con’ if you don’t have a vector version of your logo available and want to print something as spot color. In that case, you’ll have to have a vector based version created.


If you only have access to a pixel based format, and your logo appears to contain only two colors, upon closer inspection (above left) you’ll see that the image requires thousands of colors to reproduce correctly. In order to reproduce ALL those colors, you’ll need to use 4 color process printing (close up – above right) whereas if you had access to a spot color vector version, you could utilize the more economical two color approach. You’ll also need to make sure your bitmap logo is in sufficient resolution for print.

Color conversion issues: While it’s true that spot colors are extremely accurate when it comes to traditional printing, there might be some issues when its comes to converting colors for web based use (RGB colors used in website design) or for four color use in brochures and catalogs. Most spot colors, if approached carefully, can be matched almost exactly. Alas, certain colors will be a ‘as close as possible’ scenario – and even then we’re talking negligible differences that only a trained eye can see. This is also true of most online discount printers who print most of their material as 4 color process ‘gang runs’  – they print your business card and stationery on huge sheets that you share with dozens of other jobs. ‘Nit picky’ color conversion with this kind of printing is generally moot anyway – due to the varying ink densities required by the different jobs you’re sharing the sheet with, color accuracy tends to be spotty anyway). Gang printing of this nature is fine for quick-and-dirty printing (use it ourselves in a pinch) but not recommended if you’re after exacting color standards on your brand new branded assets.

Spot color printing: Some tips.

Once you’ve finished having your logo, stationery and/or brochure designed, 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‘ kind of business owner, 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 spot color printing project, and how to help insure there’s no surprises when your new letterheads, business cards and/or brochure are delivered.

If you’re hiring a printer to print spot color material, and BEFORE printing, ALWAYS check your colors with a Pantone Swatch Book. This is the only way to insure that your colors are to your liking. This is the ‘industry standard’ for matching colors so if your printer tells you that they don’t have one, select another printer. Fast.

Always ask for a ‘press proof’ of your job. While it’s sometimes difficult to get a color proof that’s completely accurate when using spot colors (most proofing systems are set up for CMYK and 4 colour process) it will give you a rough idea, and also allows you to check for typos and spelling errors.

If you’re printing on a combination of coated (glossy) and uncoated (matte) papers – typical with ‘glossy’ business cards and letterheads – keep in mind that the coated and uncoated surfaces may shift the colors and the colors may not match exactly across your stationery design package. Your printer can adjust for this by using different color inks for each part of your print job, but this may increase the price of the print run.

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 do not convert exactly. Also, 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 online printing is designed to be cheap, not precise, and you’re not paying for exacting color standards. Be realistic in your expectations.

Your printer can change spot colors on the press easily, regardless of what is ‘tagged’ in your digital file. The PMS number has no effect on the ink used – it is simply a notation to indicate to your printer what color SHOULD be used. They can set up the press substituting any colored inks for the ones originally proposed. Check the swatch book beforehand.

Suggested reading:

A beginner’s guide to logo colors and color spaces. Understanding logos, analog and digital colors.

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