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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.

Top Fortune 500 Logos Deconstructed

Published on by Matthew LaPointe in Graphics - Marketing

The logos of the top 100 companies on the 2010 Fortune 500 list are more alike than you might think at first glance. In this post I hope to uncover a few elements that are common, illuminate certain groupings, and hopefully help you think about your logo in the context of your brand a little differently.

Disclaimer: Before I get started I should point out each of the below logos was pulled in an effort to capture the most standard version of the logo each company uses. I’m sure a few are off, but for the purposes of discussing principles of logo design these will suffice.

2010 Fortune 100 company logos

While the logos of 2010's Fortune 100 may appear quite different at first glance, as we look a little closer a number of patterns emerge.

Logo design is mostly an art, but it is governed by practical rules that include proportion, scale, reproducibility, context, and other factors. Logo design also tends to reflect industry values. Consumer brands tend to have more stylized, iconic designs, whereas business-to-business or supply chain companies are less focused on this.


There are typically three classes of proportion when it comes to logo design – a square, a tall rectangle, and a wide rectangle. Most people avoid tall rectangular logos because they are difficult to incorporate into a wide variety of design applications, though in some limited circumstances they can work well. How do the top Fortune 500 companies see it? The majority, about seven out of ten, have opted to use the wide rectangle. The remaining use square designs. None use a vertical design as a primary application.

Proportions of Fortune 100 company logos.

The proportions of most logos fall into three categories: square, horizontal rectangle, and vertical rectangle. Above is a rough breakdown of how 2010's Fortune 100 fit into these categories.

Color Choice

The graphs below speak fairly clearly for themselves: the Fortune 100 companies analyzed prefer blue (to include a few deep purples) followed by red and black. Of all the color choices three-fourths of the time one of those was chosen.

There are books written on the psychology of color discussing what emotion various hues evoke, but pressing on to the core of it this is what I think – blue is chosen because it is calming, and a preferred color by many. It is also lends itself well to various shades of itself. If you have a deep blue as your primary logo color you can use a 50% screen of the same and it works well.

This particular attribute cannot be said about the next most popular color, red. Screens of red are only used by a few, because a screen of red is pink. Red is chosen because it is bold and stands out well in signage. The sky is rarely red and often blue. Take a look at the companies that chose red as their primary color and think about the most important application for them, outdoor signage.

Black is chosen because it works well with just about any other color and is very clear. The most important aspect of a logo is to communicate your name. It is only art secondarily. I found it somewhat surprising how little green was used. I suspect that with the current green movement this will change over the coming years as new companies rise and old companies refresh their looks.

2010 Fortune 100 logos broken down by hue and color count.

The vast majority of the 2010 Fortune 100 companies' primary logos consist of 1 or 2 color designs. Three quarters include a shade of blue, red, and black.

Color Count

The perspective on color count couldn’t be clearer: don’t use more than one or two colors in your logo. A small number stray and use 3 (often a neutral such as black or gray is included in that) and the rest are clear outliers with 4 and 8 colors.

The reason for this is simple: cost and brand management. More colors cost more money to reproduce in many applications. I think the larger issue has to do with brands though. Most companies have multiple version of their logo, such as a monochrome version if their standard logo is two or three colors. But the more colors your logo has the more often you have to create style exceptions. The more colors a logo has the more difficult it is to include in designs because colors clash. When this happens designers often reach for an alternate (non-primary) version of the logo. Every time this occurs it is lost opportunity for brand reinforcement.

Logo Basics

Simple logos reproduce more consistently at small and large scales than intricate ones.

A few things to keep in mind when designing a logo:

  1. Basics: Keep it simple
  2. Color: Don’t use more than three colors
  3. Proportions: Consider a horizontal rectangular shape, else a square

The Fortune 100 companies shown above aren’t successful because of their logos. In fact, a few of the logos are downright awful. But, most of them realize that a strong logo is foundational to a strong brand.