Understanding CMYK Color Space for Commercial Printing

Commercial offset printing uses a technique called 4-color process to produce the colors you see on the final printed product. This technique is called 4-color, since it uses four different inks: three “secondary” colors of Cyan, Magenta and Yellow (abbreviated as CMY), plus Black (abbreviated as K). When printed, CMYK images are composed of varying amounts of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black ink, printed as small dots which overlap at various angles to create the final image. If you examine a commercially printed image under magnification, you will see a rosette pattern that creates a type of optical illusion. However, when viewing the printed image without magnification, it appears to contain continuous tones of color.

Since a printing press prints color with 4 different inks, it is vital that your file be converted and submitted in a CMYK color mode (or color space). It is important to do this conversion on your end as a client so you have a realistic idea of how your job will print, and also to give you an opportunity to make subjective color adjustments. Even better is to begin your new document in CMYK color mode in order to avoid having to convert later. Here are the menu options for several Adobe products:

Adobe InDesign:

  • From the Edit menu, select “Color Settings.”
  • Verify that you are in Working Space: CMYK: ‘U.S. Web Coated (SWOP) v2’

To change color settings:

  • From the Edit menu, select “Convert to Profile”
  • Change the “Destination Space” to CMYK: ‘U.S. Web Coated (SWOP) v2’
  • Click OK

For Adobe Illustrator:

  • From the File menu, select “Document Color Mode”
  • A check mark appears next to current color mode
  • Select “CMYK Color”

For Adobe Photoshop:
Image illustrating CMYK

  • From the Image menu, select color “Mode”
  • A check mark appears next to current color mode
  • Select “CMYK Color”

Spot Color and PMS:

Spot Color refers to a method of specifying and printing colors in which each color is printed with its own ink. In contrast, process color printing uses four inks (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black) to produce all other colors. Spot color printing is effective when the printed matter contains only one to three different colors, but it becomes prohibitively expensive for more colors. Most desktop publishing and graphics applications allow you to specify spot colors for text and other elements. There are a number of color specification systems for specifying spot colors, but the Pantone Matching System (PMS) is the most widely used.

Most applications that support color printing allow you to specify colors by indicating the Pantone name or number. This assures that you get the correct color when the file is printed, even though the color may not look correct when displayed on your monitor. PMS works well for spot colors but not for process colors, which are generally specified using the CMYK color model.


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