Spot Color Vs. 4-Color Process

For most color print projects you will use either spot colors or process colors (such as CMYK). Budget plays a large role in the decision as well as the printing method and the specific design elements used in the layout. In general, a couple of spot colors cost less than 4-color or process color printing but when you use full-color photos, process colors may be your only option.

What is Process printing?

Process printing is a printing technique that goes by many other names: digital printing, full-color, 4-color process, and CMYK. And while the exact technique may different slightly from name to name, the overall theme is that some type of computer printer uses four different color inks (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) to produce full-color images that are vibrant and stunningly realistic. The best way to think about process printing is your standard inkjet paper printer.

While there are many benefits to using a process that allows you to capture a full image, there are also several limitations to keep in mind:

  • Process printing cannot Pantone (PMS) match your specific brand colors
  • Since process printing functions in the same way as an inkjet paper printer, you cannot use this process on items with irregular shapes and edges
  • The CMYK color combination can produce more than 16,000 different colors, but they still can't produce unique colors like metallics and fluorescents

What is Spot printing?

Spot color printing is a printing process in which each color is printed using only its own ink. This is great for when your branding guidelines call for a specific color to match, as there is no color mixing involved. Think of it as "straight out of the bottle". It is most often used on promotional items that have a one-color design in one location. More than three colors, and spot color printing gets pretty pricey. To explain where some of these additional costs come from, lets break down two of the most common forms of spot printing.

Screen Printing

Below are the steps to the screen sprinting process:

  1. Your design is put on a screen
  2. Thick green goo called emulsion is spread over the screen
  3. Before the emulsion hardens, a machine goes over it with UV-shielding ink
  4. The emulsion hardens and a negative image is displayed
  5. Colored ink is spread over the screen and applied via a printing machine
  6. The screen-printed item is ready to go

Pad Printing

Pad printing essentially involves taking a big rubber stamp, dipping it in ink, and stamping products over and over until the order is complete. The big rubber stamp is called a pad by those in the printing industry, and it differs from the stamps you might find at your local craft store.

The pads used in pad printing come in all sizes and shapes like pointed, rectangular, and round. This allows products of nearly any size to be customized with pad printing. The pads vary in density, too. Some are extra-firm, while others are best described as squishy. Whether an object's surface is flat (like t-shirts) or curved (like pens), the pad can conform to the shape and print the design accurately.

Most of the time when pad printing is selected as the decoration method, it is used to produce a single-color image. Only one ink color gets poured into the plate's etching, and the items all file through the printing process one after another. Some products do allow for a second or third color to be added, after the previous color dries.

Pad printing is most frequently used with items made from hard materials, like plastic and glass. Tumblers, water bottles, sunglasses, and pens are all great candidates for pad printing. But fabrics like cotton and leather sometimes can be pad printed as well. Every manufacturer's processes are different, but they all work to get customers the best-looking pad printed logo at an affordable price.


Spot color printing is best used when the design is simple (1-2 colors), and you have specific branding guidelines you need to match. Each additional color you add, requires another screen or pad - as well as doubles or triples the labor and production time as each color must dry before the other is applied.

Process printing is great for any full-color, complex designs. There are limitations to what products can accept process printing, and it can seem a little more costly up front - but there is no substitute if you are looking for a printing process to really make your artwork pop

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