Category: quickies

Design Quickie – Spot Colors

So you have probably have heard the term “Spot Color” but you have no idea what it means. Here is a quick definition and use example.

1. Spot Colors Defined

A spot color is any color that is printed using a single press station and a custom or pantone defined ink. That’s it. A good example would be the red on a coke can. This is printed as a single channel color instead of a CMYK build.

2. Why is this important?

A Spot color can solve a multitude of problems in a printed job, most of them mechanical in nature and occur during the actual printing process. Individual labels are not printed one at a time. They are printed on a large sheet of substrate, usually wound up on a giant continuous spool, and then die cut in to individual labels or packages. The tone of the color on a CMYK build is largely determined by the pressure applied to the printing plate or cylinder by the impression roller. This roller put even pressure across the entire printed service, called a web if unrolled from a spool. IF that pressure is off on one side of the web, the color will print at different tones on each side of the web.

This issue is completely avoided by substituting a CMYK build with a single spot color. There is no tonal mix in a spot color to over or under impress, it is just a solid shot of one color. A spot color can have tones or gradient in it, but the lack of a need to mix with other colors makes it easier to correct for on the press.

The end goal of a print run is to have a set of identical individual packages / labels when the run is completed. When CMYK builds are used to recreate large flat areas of color, the overall color values can differ over the few hours of time it takes to complete a print run. The single color nature of spot color can help to minimize this issue. Tonal differences will still happen with a single spot color, but a CMYK build is created by printing four stations all of which can drift out of spec during a print run. This multiplies both the complexity and chance for error by four when compared to a spot color.

3. How does this affect my design?

Designing with a spot color is not only a best practice when designs have a large area of flat color, but they can make a color much less costly and difficult to print. A single color set up on a single press cylinder is much cheaper to manufacture and simpler to print. This reduces waste which is one of the most costly element of the printing process. It also aids in the creation of brand lines, making them easily identifiable, yet visibly part of the family of brands. I won’t repeat my self here so check out my article on designing with flavor colors. The solution is to use spot colors whenever possible in your designs. They are cheaper and easier to reproduce than CMYK builds.


Design Quickie – RGB vs. CMYK

You have created a raster or vector graphics file and you have to decide the color space for your design to inhabit, but you have no idea whether to use RGB or CMYK color space. This quick guide should help you decide.

1. What is your design intention, and what process is this design for?

The most important deciding factor in what color space to use is the process that you final design will be used for. Some processes are limited by only being able to accommodate designs of only one particular color space. For example web design uses only RGB files and print design uses only CMYK files. Depending on color space, the final product’s color can be drastically different from what you design. Inks simply can’t replicate the range of colors created by the LCDs in you computer monitor, smart phone, or television screen. In the example below the CMYK image has less contrast and a smaller range of colors.

The best practices of designing for a specific process includes using the correct color space. That includes linked images, text links from pdfs, and all other elements of your final design. This can be done by accessing the file menu in vector based programs or the edit menu in raster based programs.

2. Why does this matter?

So your design is finished, and your customer has approved your pdf or other submittals. That means whatever you have made is good regardless of color space, right?

Technically Yes, but there is a huge caveat. If you provide the file in wrong color space you will look at best lazy or inexperienced, and at worst incompetent. Chances are your customer is going to take that design to either a printer/prepress house for print use, or a digital design studio for web site use. They will be able to fix whatever you have fouled up, it’s literally part of their jobs. This will cost time and that time will be charged to your client, causing them to incur an unexpected cost that may or may not fit in to their budget. Most design houses charge upwards of $100 an hour for access to their services. Not only have you provided them with a product they can’t use without alteration, but they have to sift through the files and find all the areas they need to fix for their process.

It would be like ordering a pizza and having the delivery guy show up with a ball of raw dough, sauce, and a pile of toppings. You could finish dressing the pizza and cook it in your own oven, but it defeats the purpose of having it professionally prepared. 

3. Solutions

You have really one of three choices. The first is to to the work yourself to make sure all of the elements of your design are created in the proper color space. If you are able this is the best option as it saves the customer money and smooths out the process. Customers like it when the creation process is effortless for them. That’s one of the reasons they are willing to pay you in the first place. Happy customers make positive referrals and leave positive reviews. This is ultimately what you want if you plan to design professionally.

The second option is of course to not care and ignore the color space as part of your design. If you are dealing with a family friend or a close acquaintance this option is probably fine. If you are advertising yourself as a competent commercial designer for freelance work, this is probably going to lead to some fairly uncomfortable conversations with your customer about expectations and follow through. People in the business of design are going to know how base level these issues are, and rightly or not assume you are not a competent designer. That’s generally not a desirable outcome.

The third option is to be honest about the shortcomings of your design. Generally customers are most interested in the processing advancing smoothly regardless of what hurdles they need to jump in order to get to an acceptable final product. If they are told in advance that the design may need additional work once they give it to whomever they decide to use for the final production, there are no surprises. If this is the path you want to follow the best practice is to not use terms like “production ready”, “print ready”, “web ready” etc. to describe your artwork. Design is visual, and as long as the design meets their visual requirements, most customers will consider your work to be complete and acceptable.

Design Quickie – Expressive Line Weight

The precision of modern drawing programs makes them a quick and easy solution creating fast and iterative drawings. Some might argue this comes at the price of the human element that allows drawings to be expressive. I think there is some merit to this opinion. Being able to see the hand of the artist in their work is one of the main things which differentiates fine arts from photography. I also think that line of logic is dismissive to the large array of digital tools in modern drawing programs you can use to customize the look of your drawings. One of the most important is the ability to alter the way line weight tapers along the stokes of vector drawn objects in Adobe Illustrator.

Take a look at the two tiger drawing above. The top one  looks scribbled and off-putting. The bottom illustration, however looks expressive and organic. Literally the only difference between the two drawings is using multiple line weights and the tapering options for the stoked black elements. These changes were all made in the “Stroke” menu in Adobe Illustrator. The other advantage is the vector and vertex count of the drawing are kept low, which can help keep your files to a usable size even in the most complicated of designs. Below are the raw vectors for the project to demonstrate how few you need with this technique.

Just go to the “Stroke” menu and select show options if not already done as shown below.

Once in the extended menu look at the bottom to select the shape profile for the stroke elements.

You can the go in to your drawing and adjust the tapering and weight of all of your vector elements. This can be the difference between a flat and lifeless illustration and an expressive and flowing design.  Below are some additional example of how varied line weight brings a drawing to life.

Design Quickie – 5 Reasons to Design with Spot Colors

Here are my top 5 reasons to design with spot colors.

1: Consistency of color across the design: Using the same swatch throughout the design process assures that all element are colored correctly.

2: Easy buildout of adjacent designs:  The use of a spot color in a series or family of designs can easily be used as the “Flavor Color” in a family of products reducing the complexity of the printing.

3: Small Text Knockouts:  Using a spot color instead of a four color process build allows you to knockout small text to the paper color in designs that would other wise fill in and be unreadable.

4: Can be used as a Technical Ink:  If dark enough, the ink can be used for technical purposes like Bar Codes, Lot numbers, Nutrition Facts, and other legal text. Your printer will love you for giving them this as an option.

5: Closer Adherence to Design Intent:  If you create a package design for a major customer out of nothing but four color process builds (something that ends up on a store shelf), the first thing they will do is give it to a guy like me to simplify it and make it more easily reproduceable.  It will be considered amateurish (because it is), and you now have a credibility problem.

Design Quickie – The Case for Global Swatches

Pssst…. Hey you…. Do you use the global swatch option in your illustration program?

Do you even know where it is or what it does? If the answer is no, let me introduce you to one of the most powerful settings in Adobe’s product line, Global Swatches.

Let’s say you are finished a design for a client and they suddenly pivot the to a new product design that effects the  color and flavor without nuking the entire concept back to step one. with just the adjustment of a few sliders and some minor text editing, you  can make a disaster in to a miracle. See the case below. The change of concept from a Yellow Sun to a Blue Neuron Star can be fixed in just a few minutes.


Global colors also allow for quick iteration of ideas across a product line, letting you recolor and adjust different flavors quickly. Spot Colors are always global.

Another great thing about Global Swatches is they work inside of other structures in Adobe product like gradients. This can also be a bit of an issue if not known before a design is built. Best process is to keep colors in gradients separate from the general illustration colors in your design.