From Digital to Physical: Spot Colors

In past months it’s come to my attention that a lot of designers don’t understand the printing processes. It’s true a lot of promotional pieces, ads and information are moving online, but we still live in a world where people need things printed on a poster, brochure or package.

I first started studying design in 1998 and at the time, the web was a new place for advertising still coming into its own, and we still designed mostly for print. Terms like, Camera-ready art, setting up proofs on card stock, and Pantone books were still in effect.

While I can write a whole book on the differences between web and physical designing, I just want to cover the main issues i’ve come across. I have a full-time job as a Pre-Press Operator, and I deal a lot with physical printing. Today, I wanted to explain to you the differences and terms of  Spot Color and CMYK.

 Spot Color

A spot color is a term mostly used in offset printing. It’s an ink defined by a Pantone number. It consists of four colors; Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black, also called CMYK. Every spot color is it’s own plate, when printing. Think of a plate as a layer for color. If you have 5 colors, you have five plates.

 Here’s a small tutorial on how to find and use a spot color.

Open up Illustrator and start a new project.

Make some boxes and fill with any color you wish.



Go to Window > Color  

This will open up the color palette and show you exactly what the break-down is. It’s safe to say it will either read CMYK or RGB. To make sure it’s on CMYK go to the Drop down box on the far right and select CMYK. If you look at the sliders you can see that the Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and black can create any color you desire.

Alone this formula doesn’t help me figure out what color you want. No two screens are alike and you can’t match colors in this way. When a designer sends me work to print and they say, “I want that red, I have it separated for you in CMYK.” That means to me, they didn’t pick a color from a Pantone Swatch Book. This also means I’m guessing in the dark what color you really want.

A Pantone Book is a series of swatches, each with a number that correlates with a Spot Color. It’s kind of the missing link from physical to digital. When starting a new project, it’s best to start looking at a Pantone Book. This is the best way to keep that color consistent throughout the entire project.

Say you see a red in the Pantone Book, and it’s a 484. You want to use it in your artwork instead of the CMYK separated red. It’s a fairly easy process to execute.

To open up the color palette go to Window > Swatch Libraries > Color Book 


Instead of going into the different styles, coatings and books we’ll just stick with the PANTONE Solid Coated (Make sure you use the exact option in illustrator as the book you’re using. Otherwise your colors won’t match). You’ll see a window open up with a bunch of thumbnails.

To search a color go to the drop down box and select show find field (If it’s not already present).

Start typing in the 484 and Illustrator will select it for you. Selecting or dragging the color will make that box the 484. Even if it doesn’t look like the color on the swatch book, it’s still always going to be that color from the book. Remember, screens lie to you. Unless you do an exact color calibration and even then, never trust a computer screen. Even a print out for that matter. You’ll never get an exact match. Leave it to the professionals.

 If you want to manage and easily see your Spot Color selection go to

Windows > Swatches


A quick and easy way to get rid of any color not in use, (Or to see a color that shouldn’t be there) go to the drop down menu and select all unused. This will highlight any color not in use. Just drag them down to the trash and you should only be left with the 484. This can come in handy when you deal with multiple Spot Colors or need to quickly change or select an entire color.

I hope this helps a little bit when setting up your artwork. I’ve seen it happen when a designer will create a beautiful work of art in CMYK and miss deadlines because I have to explain what a Spot Color is, and they go back essentially recreating the entire job.

If this was at all helpful or interesting, I’d love to hear about it. Anything that is wrong? Please let me know. If it was helpful, I do plan on making more posts like this explaining the differences in printing and anything that goes with setting up files to make it easier, quicker, and less frustrating when communicating with your own printer.


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About mvasilev

As a Designer for over 10 years, I understand the realities of deadlines and quick turnarounds. My body of work speaks for itself as an innovative and continually evolving force within the design sector.

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