Spot or Process Color? Essential Guidelines

When you create a color swatch with Illustrator you may need to know some easy settings which the software proposes. Particularly the difference between Spot Color and Process Color is really important for a good printing result. Moreover, properly choosing the type of color between these greatly affect the final costs of the printing whole process. In this article we will see which options are the best for the job, why, how to properly manage Illustrator Swatch Options window, color options and book library.

In order to better understand the different kind of color options in the swatch manager we have to inspect first a couple of important related issues:
Color models, such as RGB or CMYK, describing the colors we see and work with in digital graphics, and Printing methods, such as offset lithography or digital printing.

These topics are the basis to properly understand the differences between colors in design applications.

An Overview on Color Models

There are several models used to describe the color scheme: RGB, CMYK, LAB etc. Each model was created for specific purposes and has certain advantages over the others. Converting between the different models is generally done by a relatively simple mapping and it could be performed directly via software in case of professional ones (for example, Adobe Creative Suite software, Corel software, QuarkXpress, etc.)

By the way, the main common used color models are two: CMYK, a subtractive method, used for printing and based on inks use, and RGB, additive color model used for computer displays and based on light transmission.

It is important to choose the right color model for the job, i.e. if you are going to print your graphic work you should use CMYK method. If your graphic creation has been thought for a screen purpose then you should use RGB mode.

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Today’s digital printing methods do not have the restriction of a single color space that traditional four-processes do. Many presses can print from files containing images using either RGB or CMYK modes. The color reproduction abilities of a particular color space can vary and this may depend from paper, inks, gamut (the color range availability of a color model). The poorest gamut vibrancy of the ink colors may give unexpected results if you try to print RGB images as they were CMYK ones. RGB is for screen display and has an extremely wide gamut. Using RGB for printing is a gamble: if your image RGB gamut stays inside the CMYK one the image will be printed in the same way that if you had converted it. On the other hand if its RGB gamut exceeds the destination CMYK gamut colors will be different from the expected.

CMYK or “Process Color”

In commercial printing the procedure to print full color images such as photographs, brochures, business cards, leaflet, and so on and so long, is based on the CMYK color mode. This technique, which considers a mesh of four color (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and K that represent a Key color), is called four-color-process.

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The CMYK mode is based on the subtractive method where the process begins with white, the white canvas of the paper, and ends with black. By adding color, one over the other all three secondary colors, the result become darker and tends to black.

Where all three inks overlap, almost all incident light is subtracted, producing a weak black. To enrich this poor black a fourth key color, the black, is added as additional ink.


RGB is an additive reproduction process which uses light to display color. The additive primary colors red, green and blue beams produce all other colors. Combining them each other produces the additive secondary colors:

  • Red + Blue = Magenta
  • Blue + Green = Cyan
  • Green + Red = Yellow

instantShift - Spot or Process color? Essential Guidelines

Combining all three primary lights in equal intensities, Red + Green + Blue, produces white.

The RGB model is extremely important to graphic design because it is used in computer monitors.

Which Printing Methods Fits to the Job?

Nowadays the most common ways of creating printer products are offset lithography and digital printing.

Offset is the most common high volume commercial printing technology, applied to newspapers, magazines, brochures, stationery, and books. It is based on four plates. Each plate used to compose the final image represents a color. The results is of impressive quality, images are neat and sharp.

Offset printing offers the most flexibility. The creativity is free to experiments a wide range of materials, feeling the differences between papers, using plastic or metal surface, print on fabric depending on the best suitable printing support and sensations that the designer want to move inside his target.
The cost convenience comes with high volumes because preparing plates itself has a cost that could be too high to be covered if you need few pieces to be printed. The more volume the lower costs.

In those cases where you need few copies of a graphic products the best solution is the digital printing because is featured by fixed cost per copy, fast production and, with modern printing and inks, decent accuracy. It is the closest solution for a cost/benefit ratio. It is easier and time saving because you don’t need to make plates and expensive color proofs.

Digital printing is intended for a limited number of copy. The color mixing is automatic so this printing method ensure a higher adherence to the project because you don’t have to measure ink mix every time. That’s why color proofing are less expensive. In addition, because you don’t have to produce plates every little changes you apply to the design, it is the right method to use to create personalized printing, for example greeting cards, customized advertising or letters.

On the other hand digital printing offer less accurate color matching on the projects than offset printing calibrated using Pantone® inks.

Defining Color Type

Spot Color

A Spot Color (or Solid Color) refers to a color printed with its own ink. The range of available spot color inks is nearly unlimited. There are several industry standards in the classification of spot color systems, but the most famous is PANTONE®. Other spot color systems include TOYO, DIC, ANPA etc.

Each color is not composed, each time, by the CMYK mix but is considered like a basic one.

Spot color can also be used to refer to non-standard inks, may vary from pastels to fluorescent and metallic, as well as clear varnish, or anything else that requires its own printing plate.

Because of this procedure the printing costs increase. By the way the accuracy of the color matching is extremely high. The use of spot color is highly recommended for Company Logo or Institutional printings.

Process Color

A Process Color consist of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black (CMYK). These four inks can be mixed together to create a full spectrum of colors in a document. Because of the four inks are mixed to obtain a color the result may vary, depending on inks quality, printer accuracy, operator ability, paper or any other printing support.

Global Process

As the name may suggest Global Process color is a Process color which goes global. It is based on process color method, so with CMYK separation and plates creation, BUT it retains a link with the objects, acting as a spot color. This means that the total number of plates coming from a Global Process file will be four, you will have the ability of specify color values but if you vary the tint you also update all those objects which are using that tint all at one.

Spot, Process and Global Process in Illustrator

We have defined till now all elements to better understand the Swatches Option in Illustrator. Let’s go now to inspect that palette and how the different type of colors look like.

Go to Swatches options>Opens Swatch library>Color books.

instantShift - Spot or Process color? Essential Guidelines

instantShift - Spot or Process color? Essential Guidelines

A list of standard book in the color industry is shown. If you choose to open, for example, the Pantone Solid Coated library a new palette that includes all those colors will opens.

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Choosing a color from a library you apply a Book Color. A book color is of Spot type.

No mix different books in a single project! This is an important thing to remember. So, for example you must avoid using coated and uncoated together because each books has been developed for different dedicated intents.

You can see here following an example of how appears the Swatch Options window when you pick a color from a book library. If the color is a Pantone, the swatch name is grayed out, the type is Spot and you can’t modify it, you can only change the mode.

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Anyway you can turn this same color in a CMYK Spot Color just changing its type from the drop-down menu. It becomes a Spot color where you can see the CMYK percentage.

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You can now change the CMYK values and the color name but you need to have clear in mind that, changing the values, you lose the standard.

From a printing point of view you are asking to your printer service a plate for that new color, so you are increasing the printing cost.

Illustrator identifies in the Swatches palette the Spot colors with a small white triangle in the color sample corner with a dot inside.

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Spot color maintains a link with all the objects using that color in the document so that you can vary the tint without varying the color. If you replace that color the change will be applied to all those object that use the color.

You can turn the Spot Color in a Global Process one just choosing Process form the drop-down menu and leaving the “Global” option activated.

instantShift - Spot or Process color? Essential Guidelines

As the Spot color the Global process maintains a sort of link with all the objects using that color in the document.

The Global Process Color allows you to create a single color swatch in CMYK mode that you can update having it applied globally.

For instance, if you apply the same global color to many objects in your Illustrator document and then you decide to change the color, you simply edit the global color and everything on the page updates.

This is useful when you want use just few color swatches to the document varying its percentage to make different gradients.

The Global Process Color is identified with the same white triangle as the Solid but without the dot.

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Finally from the same Swatches Option panel you can turn the Global Process in a simple Process just unchecking the Global box. Process Colors do not automatically update throughout the document when the color is edited.

Illustrator remove from the color miniature the white dotted triangle.

instantShift - Spot or Process color? Essential Guidelines

The Global Process is not really different from the Process because it is a result of CMYK mixing as well. It is a convenient arrangement because of its behavior such as a spot color.

While some Spot Colors can be simulated well, there are many that look quite different. Particularly green and orange tints are tricky and may vary a lot. Pay attention that this not necessarily means a quality loss.

As the quality of the resulting color conversion is very subjective, the designer can make decisions using the PANTONE® COLOR BRIDGE™ guide, comparing the different result between spot and process.

Illustrator, as many high level graphic software, leaves to the creative the choice, depending on the use and on the customer requests. Big Companies have logo specification which requires Pantone colors where other just use the Pantone standard as indication about which CMYK percentage the graphic have to use.

When is Better to Use a Spot Color

As we said, generally spot color are specific colored inks following formulations that are designed to be print alone, rather than to blend with other inks.

The more spot colors used, the more film and plates are needed, the higher are costs.

To maintain a good cost/benefits ratio you may use only one to three different spot colors in your job, otherwise it would be better start to prefer process colors.

So here a list of occasion where using a spot color is an advantage:

  • Publications uses no more than three colors.
  • Pantone color specification required to exactly match a big company logo color.
  • Use of particular inks such as metal, pastel, varnish tints.
  • Colors that can not accurately reproduced with CMYK Process inks.

When to Prefer a Process Color

Talking about how many colors is best to use in printing is obvious now that Process Colors and Global Process are in this case the same thing because both are based on CMYK blending.

So a Process Color method should be preferred when:

  • Publication uses full-color photographs.
  • Publication needs to reproduce more than three spot colors.
  • To produce various hues and shades depending on the type of paper.

When Using Both

Sometimes it could be even better use both, spot and process method, in the same job. This happens when, for example, you have to print an institutional brochure or an annual report where you have to reproduce the exact company logo color and multi-color graphs, charts and photography.

So you can apply the spot color to the logo and process to the other elements of the page.

Remember that this goes to increase your costs because you will get as result four plates (CMYK) plus a plate for each spot color you may add.

To Sum Up

Using a Spot color means a new printing plate use, increasing printing costs.

Process Color is based on a CMYK mix and creates a single swatch.

You can apply Global Process Color, still based on CMYK inks, to globally update colors such as Spot one without requiring a new plate and saving money.

The method you are going to apply will affect your printing costs and results.

Further resources

Image Credits

Find Something Missing?

While writing this article, it’s always a possibility that we missed some other great facts and tips. Feel free to share it with us.

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  1. Excellent and useful article!

  2. Cool. Really nice and useful article.
    Colors are not my strong side but I try to improve it. Thank you ester for the insight. :)

  3. Thanks for writing this article. Sadly many employees at advertising agency does not know what a spot color is (or so it seems). This sometime produce some unwanted result when we as a newspaper have to convert the colors to CMYK (so that they don’t just disappear).

    Have seen red spot colors turn blue. Some elements to loose transparency (spot + transparency + over other elements is a “don’t do” combination). And even if the red turns out red the designer have no control of the color conversion – and it might turn out not to be the red they wanted.

    If unwanted results occur due to color conversion from spot to CMYK happens, it is the designers own fault – and we cannot be held reliable.
    … so there should be an economic side of wanting to learn this as well :)

  4. Thank you all for the appreciation, I always hope that my experience can be useful to some another :)

    @2rB you are absolutely right. Spot Color is very particular and have to be used when you are really working with Pantone inks. Otherwise much better stay safe and using Global Process.

  5. I have recently started creating websites and when creating objects and pictures I don’t fully grasp the colour system. Thanks for this article

  6. Awesome write up guys! I find myself so many times stuck in the colour space of Web.

  7. Thank you,very useful

  8. Hey – because I’ve had a lot of hits and misses with printers, I thought I would add a couple of things:

    First – watch your document setup. If you often work in Illustrator to produce documents for the screen, you’ll probably have a document in RGB mode. But if you are doing one for print, you need to make sure you’re in CMYK mode. You specify this when you create the document, but to be sure go to file > document color mode and check.

    Then you want to setup your preview colors. IF you are working with a CMYK document BUT you are using an RGB screen – what you are seeing is not what you are printing. It is very important to PREVIEW your work before you finalize your artwork for print. Illustrator will use your selected proof color mode to simulate how your document will look when it is printed. This is most important for digital printing, where you often don’t get to do a press check, or get to review a hard proof before all 5,000 or 10,000 copies are printed.

    If you are using a digital printer – the good ones will specify what kind of presses they are using, OR what color profile to use for that press.

    You can set your color profile in your document by going to view > proof setup > customize, and then choose your color profile For instance US Sheetfed Coated v2, and US Web Coated SWOP are pretty common here.

    Once you have done that you can go to view > proof colors, to get a simulated preview of how your image will print. This helps you see what colors you are working with that are within the RGB colorspace but won’t reproduce on CMYK. Extremely important if you are converting RGB graphics\photos to CMYK, which will often show up much darker than you anticipate.

    Another big thing to watch out for is your Black settings. CMYK printers often use something called Rich Black. That is 100% K + 10-15% of C, M, & Y. When they print only 100% K the black can often appear grey. So printers add a bit of each color for a nice dark rich black. Illustrator has settings related to this under illustrator > preferences > appearance of black. I generally prefer the screen to output blacks accurately so that I remember to set that up correctly depending on my printer. Not all printers use rich black, but most higher quality press printers will, so if you’ve ever gotten something back that was grey, but expected it to be black, this is why.

    When you save your document, save as a pdf, and then make sure you convert the document to the same color profile that you were using when you previewed your proof colors. I use different pdf presets for different printers – but I generally make sure to Convert to Destination, and set my Destination for the color profile that the printer has given me for their press\ink combination, and then include the destination profile in the document. It will give you a little warning next to the Color Conversion setting if you have any embedded media or mixed RGB colors with CMYK, which will be changed when you output the file.

    Staying on top of all these different color settings will help insure that your results match your expectations. However nothing beats a live press check, or hard proof before print. Even after years of doing this, I still make mistakes from time to time, and it’s a lot better if I catch it with 10 copies printed, than with 15,000.

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  10. Just a smiling visitor here to share the love

  11. I will keep your new article. I really enjoyed reading this post, thanks for sharing.

  12. I never knew what those triangles and dots represented in the color swatches of illustrator. Nor I knew their importance. Thanks so much for the info!

  13. thanks for the knowledge

  14. Hi, I am involved in marketing and sales training and really enjoyed your article, your explanations are simple and to the point. Thanks for the information!!!

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