Colour and printing

What you see isn’t always what you are going to get

Colour is a subject that comes up often in our industry – for obvious reasons. We have written this article in the hope that it will help you to understand what can and can’t be achieved when it comes to colour on a printed item and on a computer screen.

The main point of this article is that even though you might want to have a specific pink on your business cards that matches exactly to the piece of fabric you have provided us with, we can’t guarantee it will be achievable. We do our best to achieve consistent colour throughout your brand and if you want a specific colour there are ways we can get as close as possible to matching to your colour, but the degree of accuracy depends on many things, including your budget and the type of printing that needs to be used.

What you print on your printer, what the printer up the roads prints on his printer, what you see on your monitor, what your friend sees on their monitor or printed from their printer will all probably be different. In some cases VERY different, in others the yellow might be a bit darker or lighter, the green might be more of a blue green instead of a grass green.

We are not going to go into this area in depth, we just want to provide you with an overview of how it works. For the purposes of this article the word ‘printer’ refers to printing machines. Please also note that different countries approach colour and printing in different ways – this article has been written from a New Zealand perspective.

There are many different types of printers, many different makes and models of printers and of course every printer has a different operator

The first thing to understand is that it is very unlikely that you will find two printers that would print all colours in a job EXACTLY the same, even if they were using the exact same file to start with, the same type of printer and the same make and model of printer. There are many variables that will affect the final outcome including how the printing machine is maintained, the type of inks used, how heavy the inks are applied, the type of paper used, how the job is finished and many more.

The main type of printer used in our industry for printing brochures, stationery etc are offset printers. Digital printers are also used – usually for smaller runs.

Different types of printers are used to print signage, display banners, flags… and often different makes and models produce different results. One good example is display banners – some types of printers that print display banners have a distinct ‘green’ hue, others have a distinct ‘red’ hue ie. the overall colour with have a very slight green or red tinge to it.

There are different types of colour mixes

For printing we use either CMYK or spot colours. For websites, power point presentations and other artwork that will be displayed on a monitor or screen we use RGB.

CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black)

Put simply, in this scenario we start with four buckets of colours; Cyan (blue), Magenta (pink), Yellow (yellow) and K (Black) and any colours we want are made from a mix of two or more of these four colours. If we want a nice red we mix 100% Magenta with 100% Yellow. Of course we don’t mix it ourselves, we set the colour in our files as 100C 100M. Even if we do this, if the operator printing the job decides to print the M (Magenta) a little heavier then we would get a different red than if he had printed it not as heavy (lots of buttons involved that he presses!).

Using CMYK we can achieve pretty much any colour we want to but it is not always easy to achieve consistency and the exact colour we want… or even close to the colour we want.

SPOT colours

The best way to explain spot colours are to liken them to the colours you pick from colour swatches when you want to paint your house. They are the best way to get a specific colour and to achieve consistency throughout your brand. We have what are called Pantone swatches and we select the colours from these swatches.These colours are mixed by the person who is printing the job – they follow a set recipe so in theory if you print pms360 at one printer, it should be the same if another printer in another country printed the same job.

The accuracy of the final outcome with spot colours is affected by how accurately the colours are mixed, how heavy the ink is run at the time of printing, the type of stock, the finish of the job.. and many other things.


RGB is the colour method we use for websites and viewing on screen. We experience the exact same problems with this type of colour in that a the colours of a website viewed on one computer may be quite different on another. Of course, as with printing, blue will be blue but it might be a purple blue instead of a navy blue.

Unless you have a lovely big budget, you often have to be a little flexible with regard to the level of colour accuracy you are prepared to accept.

There are things we can do to ensure the best possible outcome with regard to colour consistency and accuracy but these things can takes time, both for us and for the printing company, which results in a higher cost.

Where a certain colour is required, or where consistency of colour across a range of products or an entire brand are required there are steps we will take to help achieve this. Some of these steps include using spot colours where possible, carrying out a press check for each job where we stand at the printing machine and work with the printer to achieve an outcome as close as possible to what we want and we put more time into liaising with the printing companies to get the job right.

In some cases all that is required is to provide an example of previous artwork – but even then, often the safest option is for us to go along and work with the printer, using the example as a guide.


The only way you are going to know for sure what colour your job will be is when it has been printed. Proofs should NEVER be used for checking colour. They are for checking layout and copy. Again, there are ways to print proofs of your work which will give you a possible idea of the colour but it is never going to be 100% accurate.