Understanding Color Output From Web to Print

Post contributed by Jacqueline McClellan, Graphic Designer at 4CDesignWorks


As a designer, I hear about one particular problem a lot.  A client loves the logo we created for them, and thinks it looks great on their website!  Then they go to print their logo and ask: “Why does my logo color look completely different when we print it on our office inkjet printer?” This question illustrates a real challenge color presents to designers, clients and all vendors in between, and warrants an explanation.

Your Computer Screen

Whether you are a Mac or PC user, your computer uses and emits light as red, green, and blue (RGB) pixels to display color. The combinations are calculated in the millions. Printed inks can only generate thousands of combinations. There will even be subtle differences between old and new computers, and calibrated and un-calibrated computer screens!

Office Inkjet Printers

This type of printer uses “wet” inks that get absorbed onto usually, cheap or highly absorbent paper. These types of printers generally try to emulate RGB screen colors, which are not bad for general office use, but they do not compare well at all with printing industry standards – the Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black (CMYK) Process or Pantone Matching System (PMS). Often colors will look over saturated or dull as a result of the ink soaking into the paper, compared to how they appear on a computer monitor.

Office/Commercial Laser Printing (a.k.a. Digital Printing)

These printers use “dry” powders or toners that use heat to seal the “ink” on top of the paper. These printers can get closer to the commercial CMYK/Pantone range but can fall over in the blues, some greens and oranges. Lasers print black, graphs, and flat colors very well but are not great for photos.

Commercial Offset Printing

Professional businesses use offset print machines often worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. They use both the “process” CMYK and PMS color matching systems. The ink is a wet ink and soaks into the paper. Ink gets mixed either by machine or by hand depending on how old-school the printer is.

The CMYK Process is referred to as 4-color or full color process. The Pantone (PMS) System can print a range of colors that CMYK can’t and vice versa. PMS colors can be used in 1 and 2 color, small-press environments and is good when designing for and choosing corporate color combinations with predictable results.

Commercial printers have access to special Pantone books to assist in comparing CMYK and PMS color to ensure the closest, truest color match.

Don’t Forget the Paper!

Paper and any finishing touches also play a big part in the way color displays. Gloss, satin, uncoated, coated, matt laminated, machine varnish, etc. etc. Uncoated – like letterhead or general photocopy paper – absorbs more ink, sometimes making even the crispest most vibrant photo look dull.

So as you can see, there are a lot of factors that can affect color output!  Above and beyond the complexities of any print job, always remember that your go-to solution for any project question or concern should be your design firm.  You pay them for not only their technical service, and their creation of your logo and graphics, but to help guide you through the successful production of all printed materials to go along with them!  Your designer will be able to help you find the truest print match that does your business identity justice.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Good Read for all beginner designers, clients, vendors to have a better understanding of color outputs.
    Thanks for Sharing 🙂


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