CMYK – Break It Down For Me

Honestly, almost all of our work is printed CMYK – whether processed through the press or through the digital printer.

CMYK is just that: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, BlacK. These four colors combine within tiny dots on a page to make up a wide array of colors for our viewing pleasure. Actually, cyan magenta and yellow do most of the work. The three combined should technically make black, but our eyes process much richer colors with the added “key” black.

CMYK process printing is also known as subtractive, because we start with a white sheet and each touch of color added subtracts the white space.

A CMYK swatch is labeled in percentages of 0-100% of each color. 0 – 100 – 0 – 0 is just a fancy way of saying 100% Magenta. 100% of each color would result in the blackest of blacks, commonly known as registration black (see below), but then we’d be dealing with an oversaturation problem. Too much ink coverage in one spot can weigh a sheet down and seriously impact dry time.

Poor Rich Black

There’s a lot of hype in the design world on the elusive Rich Black. Some swear by a certain formula to obtain the darkest, strongest, richest black possible. We won’t swear by a specific mix, but we can offer our two cents here. Any lesser combination of CMY with a strong layer of K will provide a richer black than just K. Too much CMY and we’ll oversaturate the black, so less is more people. Consider 30%CMY 99%K.

Designers: Change the tone of your black depending on your project. For a cooler touch, add more cyan. For warmer tones, try more magenta. Now instead of a Rich Black, you’ll have a Rich Smart Black.

On the other hand, make sure that fine type is 100% black only. This ensures that the only plate to print the lettering is the black one, eliminating strange shadows or halos of cyan, magenta, and yellow.

Registration Black

Registration black is simply 100% of each color plate to be printed. A typical CMYK job printed on the press will utilize crop marks, registration marks, and a color bar. Marks printed with registration black ensure that each plate prints those marks. This makes it easy for the press operator to use those guides and line up the plates correctly.

Converting to CMYK

There are a few ways to make sure a full color file will print properly, starting with CMYK color and 300 dots per inch. If using photographs with RGB color, or Pantone swatches, you’ll want to translate those colors into a CMYK combination for print.

Most programs can easily export a document to a CMYK color profile. It’s a one-click output setting for Adobe. Take a peek at the new file and make sure the colors will work for you. If not, you’ll want to tweak the original colors and try again.

Hint: Vibrant neons or brights are the most difficult to translate from RGB to CMYK. Some colors are simply impossible to bridge. In this case, the only way to achieve a neon or bright would be to select a Pantone and then run the job CMYK + that spot color. It will be expensive, but those colorful results will be worth it! To do this, flatten the pdf to make sure no other colors overlap the Pantone. The Pantone is a solid ink, so any mixing with CMYK will produce muddied results.

To learn more about all the color models, including the Pantone Matching System and the RGB system, follow the links below!