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Professional Printing Basics: The Cost of Color

Published on by Matthew LaPointe in Graphics

Color doesn't have to be expensive. One problem you may encounter is that print vendors may not help you find the most economical solution. You may have to lead them to it. The first step in this process is understanding what’s available.

In the world of offset printing there are typically three types of color: spot colors, builds, and coatings.

Spot Colors

Spot or solid colors refer to inks that are mixed in a precise way so they are reproduced consistently from job to job over time and from different print vendors. The most common spot color reference used in offset printing is the Pantone Matching System (PMS). Colors are often referred to by their number followed by the abbreviation PMS. For instance, PMS 389 is a lime green. Spot colors are often found on corporate identity pieces (business cards, letterhead, etc.) and jobs requiring three or fewer colors.

Pantone color spot swatch

Pantone swatches are used by designers to select precise colors and by press operators for ink ratios so they are able to mix them for your job.


In most offset printing applications builds, also referred to as four color, or process printing are based on a four color model. Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and blacK (CMYK) are printed in small dot patterns, such that when seen at a normal viewing distance blur together to give the appearance of continuous tones. This is most commonly seen where color photos or jobs where four or more colors need to be represented.


Coatings, while not strictly color, alter the price of printed materials in exactly the same way as opaque inks. A clear coat can be applied to an entire piece or to select areas on a piece. There are lots of types of coatings used for various purposes. The most practical reason a coating is applied is to prevent ink on pieces with heavy coverage from transferring or coming off on anything they touch, including hands or the other pieces they are stacked with. Coatings range in effect including dull, matte, satin, and glossy or wet looking finishes. Multiple coatings are often used in combination.


From a cost perspective spot, builds, and coatings are all similar. Traditional offset presses have a fixed number of reservoirs in which to hold pigments or coatings. They range from one to many. So, for a full color job (i.e. build or four color process), a press with at least four reservoirs will likely be used. If you add a coating a fifth reservoir, or a second pass is necessary (that is, the entire job needs to be run through a press again to pick up the coating).

Fewer colors aren’t typically less expensive because the ink itself is expensive. Rather, it has much more to do with the labor and equipment involved. One-, two-, and three-color presses are much simpler machines, easier to setup, and easier to wash down following a job. Full color printing requires larger presses, more waste setting up, and more attention to the run by the press operator to ensure quality.

Digital Presses

If this were written a ten or so years ago, that would have been the end of the article, but as it is, technology marches on. Digital presses, while they have been around since the early 90s are now readily available in print shops. They have brought full color professional printing to the masses. Short run jobs that never would have been considered for full color application before are now possible. Digital presses don’t require the same level of expertise or labor to run and produce little or no waste. It’s important to note that digital presses often can’t produce the same quality product as a traditional press.


Work with your print vendors. Learn about what equipment they have. It will help you design cost friendly materials. If a bid seems high to you, don’t assume you’re being ripped off and go with another shop. Ask questions. Often with the slightest changes to your job you can see dramatic reductions in price.