Let’s say you are planning on having some printing done, and your designer or printer asks… how many colors is it? Will you be printing 4 color process or spot color?

Here is a brief explanation of the differences and how each method is best used. The image samples used in this post show the basic difference between a 2-color spot color, versus a 4-color (or “full color”) process logo. Although they look somewhat similar, they are very different in construction.

Spot Color printing

This type of printing consists of printing with 1 or more pre-mixed colors (generally 1, 2 or 3 colors at once). Spot printing uses a color system of solid, premixed colors known as Pantone colors.

Click on the sample to view it in full size.


When using spot printing, colors are more accurate because you have already determined the color by its specific Pantone number. Since the ink is not being mixed, that color will never change from one print run to the next. For example: a Pantone 186 Red will always be 186 Red. Some colors, such as metallics and fluorescents, are only available as spot colors—the same color and effect can’t be achieved using 4-color process.

Spot color is generally more economical if printing is kept to 3 colors or less.


Spot colors are nearly impossible to replicate on digital print devices, such as laser printers.

4-Color Process Printing

Process printing uses 4 colors which, together, are known as CMYK:

  • Cyan
  • Magenta
  • Yellow
  • Black (also known as “Key”)

The combination of these colors, used on their own or overlapped with one another, will produce a full color spectrum typically used when printing photographic types of images, or graphics with lots of color depth.

Click on the sample to view it in full size.


If it takes more that 3 colors to achieve a print reproduction, than 4-color printing will probably be most economical. CMYK printing is the best method to achieve realistic looking photographs on a printed piece.


Since the colors are a mix of dots over other dots, there is a good chance color will vary from printer to printer and job to job.

Learn more about printing colors

To get more information on Pantone colors visit: www.pantone.com

Fun fact– Turquoise (15-5519) has been named Pantone’s color of the year!