Choosing Colors for Your Full Color Printing

This article will provide newcomers with a general introduction to choosing colors, as well as choosing colors specifically for print designs.

It’s no secret that the web has elbowed its way into a fair bit of the action that was once the exclusive territory of the print industry. However, there comes a time in the life of every successful business when printing becomes a necessity. There’s a big, beautiful offline world out there, and you can color it tickled pink to see you’re interested in printing for it!

Web vs. Print

The colors we see on our computer screens will never be exactly the same as the colors we see on paper. This is because the colors on screens is produced by light, while the colors on printed materials are produced by inks. The color model used by computers and other screen-based technology is known as RGB (red, green, blue), while the model for most printing is CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, and key, or black).

At Hotcards, which uses CMYK printing, different hues are created by mixing cyan, magenta, and yellow. The range of hues that can be produced is known as CMYK’s color gamut, which is different fro the RGB model, although each model covers thousands of different colors.

A good way to wrap your head around the difference is by this example: When color is created by ink, the white you see on the page represents the white of the paper – all the colors mixed together would produce black. On the other hand, when it comes to the RGB model, all the colors mixed together create white, because that is the nature of light.

Shades are created by adding varying degrees of black to a color, just as tints are created by “adding white.” CMYK printing creates a huge variety of different shades of the colors you choose by using the white of the printing paper and the black, or K, ink.

As in designing for the web, interesting color schemes develop not so much by choosing different hues as by playing with shading, tinting, saturation, and tone, all of which can be created by using different combinations of ink. However, once again, it is important to remember that no matter how hard we try, the CMYK model will never be able to exactly reproduce colors found in the RGB model.

Scheming for Print

A good place to begin thinking about colors is on a color wheel. Color wheels can help us to select colors that will complement each other, and finding a printed example is your best bet. That being said, there’s no harm in starting online, where there are several useful tools available, here and here, for example.

Beautiful color schemes are generally created in one of two ways:

You can choose a color, and then select varying tones of that color to round out your palette. For example, choosing a shade of orange would present you with a gamut of tones ranging from peach and tan to brown and red. However, you wouldn’t just want to slap a variety of oranges, tans, and reds together. A color’s varying tones complement each other in ways that different hues can fail to, sometimes miserably.

Use the color wheel to choose two (contrasting), or more (triadic, tetradic, etc.) complementary colors. Complementary colors are colors that can be found opposite or equidistance from each other on a color wheel. These colors, when blended, will actually cancel each other out, producing a black, grey, or white color. But when used side by side in a color scheme, the results are extremely esthetically pleasing.

Finding Harmony

When creating a contrasting color scheme of two, three, or even four colors, you might find that colors purported to be complementary actually seem to clash. However, try playing with tones, shades, and saturation, and you’ll quickly discover some very striking possibilities.

By using complementary colors, you create contrasts and harmonies that will reinforce each other rather than erase each other. As the effectiveness of a piece of print advertising is largely based on the viewer’s ability to absorb it instantly and effortlessly, it is crucial to select colors that will not erase each other.

This is where color selection for printing differs considerably from color selection for interior design. Two hues of blue, for example, might look great in your living room, but on a poster, a banner, or any other type of printed sign, they will show little more than a blur to the passing eye. Contrasting colors, on the other hand, can create such a dramatic effect that passersby are literally stopped in their tracks.

How our Brains React to Color

It is also important to consider the impact of warm vs. cool colors. Although color theorists don’t put a lot of stock in the “temperature” of colors, artists and designers agree that reds represents the warmer side of the color spectrum, while blues are conventionally “cool” colors. This is because red and its buddies: oranges, yellows, and browns, are associated with heat and sunlight, while blue and its buddies: greens, violets, and greys, are associated with cold and nighttime.

It follows that reds tend to be associated with warm feelings such as love, passion, and comfort. Of course, the flip side to this is that reds also evoke anger and fierceness. Blues, for their part, are associated on the one hand with cold feelings such as coolness, indifference, and even cruelty, while on the other hand the proper shades and tones may invoke feelings of calm and peace.

No one will claim that the moods created by color are invariable, but particularly if you’re a designer, and you spend your days thinking about color, it’s easy to forget that the average audience does react to color in these somewhat predictable ways.

Going Offline

Last but not least, try to imagine your print materials in action in the real world. Are they going to be displayed indoors or outdoors? Will they be seen by drivers, pedestrians, or people just sitting around? Will they be interacting with a desert climate, a winter climate, or a green, outdoorsy climate?

Do these questions sound silly? They shouldn’t. There’s nothing worse than carefully choosing colors that go on to blend into their surroundings in a decidedly unspectacular way. For example, landscaping and gardening companies LOVE to have eco-friendly, green-toned color schemes. Unfortunately, their signs, designed to advertise their labors, blend into the carefully-trimmed foliage.

It’s also a fact that our eyes see colors differently in the dark. For example, the color red is very bright in daylight, but at night, it fades away to an almost grey color. This means that certain shades of red and blue in combination might look great during the day, but at night, a red foreground might fade entirely into the blue background. During winter months in particular, an outdoor print ad that is invisible at night can be a partially wasted investment.

These are the major things that need to be taken into consideration when developing a color scheme for print. Today, many businesses, campaigning politicians, and designers develop color schemes that look great on the web, but are plagued by difficulties in print. By considering the above-discussed factors, you can print-proof your color schemes and ensure that your designs have a lasting and effective impact as they emerge into the offline world.