Elena Nazzaro
By Elena Nazzaro |
IN Design |

What Everyone Ought to Know about Color Printing from Computer Documents

1600x600-color-printing-800x300There’s color on your screen, color in your professionally printed brochure, color that comes from your desktop color printer. The problem is, the red you see on your screen almost never matches the red you print out of your printer, and the red you print out of your printer almost never matches the job once you get it professionally printed.

Why does this happen? How we see color is dependent on the medium that carries it to us. There are two different basic types of color: Subtractive and additive.

Learning more about the way color is created and used will help you to get more accurate results every time.

Additive Color: The Color You See on your Monitor

The color on your computer is made up of white light that originates behind the color and shines through the screen. This is additive color. The white light on a blank screen is actually the combined presence of red, green, and blue pixels.

What does this mean for me? Since the color is derived from light, it may appear more bright or intense than when printed. For example, if you made a red box in a Word doc, printed it, then held the page up to the screen, they would not match. Furthermore, your monitor may have a different adjustment than your neighbor’s. It may be brighter or have more contrast. The image on your screen will not match printed materials.

Color on a page comes from light that passes through the pigment, bounces off the white paper, and passes back through the pigment (which blocks some of the spectrum) to show the color. This is subtractive color. The black on a piece of paper is the combined presence of all colors.

Subtractive Color: The Color You See Printed on the Page

Color on a page comes from light that passes through the pigment, bounces off the white paper, and passes back through the pigment (which blocks some of the spectrum) to show the color. This is subtractive color. The black on a piece of paper is the combined presence of all colors.

What does this mean for me? Color is highly dependent on the method of printing. Your desktop printer will never match the color output of a Heidelberg press (a color offset press), but it can give you an indication of the neighborhood you're in.

Printing can also vary from one desktop printer to another, and can vary on your own printer depending on the settings and paper quality you use. It's best to record and save your settings so that when you want to re-print those report covers, the new ones will match the existing ones. I've printed the same image from different programs and had wildly different results. In InDesign (Adobe InDesign desktop publishing software), my red was deep red. In Illustrator (Adobe Illustrator design software), that same red printed brown. In Photoshop (Adobe Photoshop desktop digital photography software), it appeared as a muted red. It pays to experiment and take notes so that the next time you want to get the same result, you can replicate it without spending all that time experimenting again.

What Else Causes Variations in Color?

These include:

  • Computer monitor settings
  • Office lighting (fluorescent vs. incandescent)
  • A desktop printer
  • The quality of paper
  • Printing from a professional printer

So What’s a Designer to Do?

First, resign yourself to the fact that unless you are rigorous about your screen calibration, the color on your screen will never match what you print. Just accept it and move on. There’s plenty else you can do to assure that color comes out in the way you want.

Second, your color printer is not going to match professionally printed pieces, so don't spend hours tweaking a color on your Epson and then expect to get the same color from the professional printer. It’s not going to happen. The exception is if your desktop printer is the final printer. Tweak away. Make sure you note the paper and settings as mentioned above. Focus on the output, and use color matching systems to your advantage. The great part is that the line between the two are blurring all the time, so it’s getting easier to match colors from different sources providing you have the right software.

Color systems for the web/screen: Do you want to make sure that everybody, everywhere sees the same green as you do on your monitor? The use of hexadecimal values assures that the color will be consistent throughout your project.

What is hexadecimal? Every color you see on your screen is assigned a hexadecimal (yes, that means 16) value. White is # FFFFFF, black is #000000.

Where can you find it? Most image-creation programs like Adobe Photoshop or a page-layout program like Dreamweaver (Adobe Dreamweaver desktop software) will have a palette from which you may choose, or will convert whatever custom colors you dream up into a hexadecimal code for your web page. Or you can put in a code and it can convert it to RGB or CMYK colors to use in print. They won’t match exactly, but they’ll be pretty darn close.

Color Systems for Printing

In most page layout and paint programs you can choose your colors based on RGB (Red, Green, Blue—remember, these are the colors that make up what you see on screen); HSB (Hue, Saturation, Brightness); CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black—the four colors that make up process printing); or Pantone. The first two are for your screen. The last two are for printing. The nice thing about many programs is that they’ll convert the colors for you.

Where can you find it? Even within printing, there can be a huge margin for error. That’s why there's the Pantone Matching System (PMS). Pantone offers swatch books that show exact colors of ink that each have a name and a recipe. It’s like a cookbook for printers. So when you tell a printer in Poughkeepsie and a printer in Peoria that you want something printed with PMS 186 U, you know that you’re assured that both of them should be the exact same color red.

You can read LOTS of fascinating stuff (and in WAY more technical detail) at (Note: they also have swatch books that convert PMS colors to CMYK. So if you're doing a four-color brochure and you know the logo has to be PMS 186, you can look it up and pretty accurately match it as C:0/M:91/Y:76/K:6 without having to add in the cost of another ink. Pretty neat!) The swatch books can be costly, but once you have one, guard it with your life, because everyone will try to steal it. They’re that great.

The Easiest Color-Matching Solution of Them All: Your Brain

Save a folder of your own printed material, and include notes of the colors you like. It’s the best way to replicate colors that have pleased you in the past. I have printed palettes of colors saved from magazine pages I’ve designed, so that when I had a question about white text showing up well on a 60% gold background of a color I had created myself, I can pull out a page and check it BEFORE it goes to the printer.

Save yourself money, frustration, and a lot of wasted paper when you learn how to use color systems to your benefit. You may never be disappointed by color again.


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