Lately we’ve been talking a lot about color! In keeping with that, number 5 in the Things Designers Hate series is a common question:
5) “Why don’t the colors print like they look on my computer screen?”
The question itself isn’t exactly the problem. Rather, the issue is that many clients don’t ask it until the job is nearly complete. A client may assume that an image she sees on her computer will look precisely the same printed out. When this turns out to not be the case, aggravation and frustration invariably ensue. The client is disappointed that she didn’t get what she was expecting, and we’re frustrated because we want the client to be happy—and we don’t want to have to go back to the drawing board at late stages in the design process.
This can be easily avoided! You simply need to know the difference between viewing images on a computer and viewing a printed image, so that you can factor that in when communicating with your designer.
It all comes down to two simple, but important, abbreviations: CMYK and RGB.
RGB refers to the primary colors of light: Red, Green, and Blue. These are the colors used by your computer monitor (and any other light-operated system, like the lighting rig at concerts or theatre performances, for example) to create all the colors in the spectrum. When it comes to light, white is made up of all the colors, and black is no light at all.
CMYK is the term used to quickly refer to the process by which images are printed in color. CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and blacK. With pigment, the process is the opposite of light: white space is achieved by using no color, and black is a combination of all the colors. Black is also added to a given pigment to darken it.
Since the images viewed on your screen are created with light, turning the screen brightness up or down, or altering the “contrast” setting, will change how those images appear. It is unlikely that your designer’s computer is set to the exact same settings as your computer, so a design sent to you online will not look exactly the same on your screen as it looked on your designer’s screen. When the image is printed, it will again be subject to color variation.
You can avoid surprises when it comes to color by using a Pantone color guide. Pantone colors are standardized using numbers, so when your designer says they’re using Pantone blue #285PC, you can refer to the book to see how it will look when printed. Printers also use the Pantone guide, so their colors should be exactly the same as the colors shown in the book. By referring to the Pantone guide, you can get a good idea of what to expect from the colors in your printed ad, even if you’re looking at it on a computer screen. You can also always request a printed sample before finalizing the design, just to make sure it looks how you expect it to.
By keeping in mind that colors will differ from screen to page, and using the Pantone book as a resource, you can avoid unnecessary confusion and keep things running smoothly with your designer!