Not getting the perfect colors in print is an all-too-common mistake that many graphic designers and artists make. After painstakingly creating their designs, logos or graphics on cutting edge computers, they often notice that the end result, namely the final print, doesn’t exactly look like the computer version.
Almost all printer manufacturers, but also graphic design software developers, inform users about the issues caused by the different color formats. These formats, such as the common RGB (red, green, blue), are used by multiple graphic design software packages, while the common print color format, named CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black), is used by printer manufacturers for almost all their products. When a user creates a graphic design in RGB format and prints it in CMYK format several issues occur, and the colors will not look exactly the same in both mediums.
Although the RGB-CMYK relationship is tricky and has sometimes ruined great posters or logos, it can easily be avoided by following a set of simple rules. In some cases, the conversion can go smoothly, with unnoticeable differences between the shades of color, but sometimes the hues are very distinct and can change the entire piece of artwork. What’s more, there are colors that do look better in the final print version than in the initial “digital work phase”, but these are few, and a professional graphic designer should not rely on this small artifice.
Using the CMYK Color Mode to make sure the colors are similar
Setting your graphic design software color scheme to CMYK is the best way to make sure the colors that show up in print are the same as the ones you see on the computer screen. The four color mode uses cyan, magenta, yellow and black to create the whole spectrum of colors. This process is subtractive, meaning that each unique color is created by reducing or increasing its “light” factor. For instance, the K color (black) is used to “extract” the light from every color, creating unique, successive colors. When setting your software to the CMYK color mode, the colors will be created in a similar way, but digitally. This guarantees that the colors will look very similar in both digital and print versions.
Do some colors show up better in print than on a computer?
After making sure that both the computer and the printer work on the same color mode (preferably CMYK), you will notice that some colors do look better in print. Experts point out that the material itself might cause this. Some types of paper, such as satin paper, can create a spectacular contrasting effect, especially for more pale colors and hues. On the other hand, shiny materials, which are commonly used for posters, may highlight electric and powerful colors, making them stand out. This is one of the reasons why graphic artists use powerful colors for fonts, generally on a bland, static background.
Some colors may seem to stand out better in print because of the contrasts created with nearby colors. For instance, in cartography, designers often use complex, but similar hues and patterns that “look better on print”, such as soft green hues, combined with earthly colors, but with sharp blue contrasts. Similarly, for physical maps, neutral colors are used for texts to highlight the physical features of the terrain.
Another example is found in our industry. Signs that are meant to be seen from a moving vehicle, such as billboards, only use a handful of colors, which are almost always contrasting. Some of these colors are picked specifically because they look better from a distance, especially when the viewer is moving at high speed. Almost always, these signs have a sharp contrast which attracts the viewers’ attention in a certain spot. In this case, the colors that look better in print than on a computer are strong red hues, electric green and yellow and several tones of cyan and magenta.