How to master the color black in print design

Jürgen Heiss

There are several colors of black in the digital world and you want to avoid choosing the wrong black, so it doesn’t smudge or look blurry when printed.

In this tutorial, I will talk about the different colors of black that you should use, and not use, in Print design.

RGB vs. CMYK

RGB (Red, Green, Blue) values are used in web-based designs like websites and banners. The common black to use in web designs is a RGB value set to zero:

R: 0
G: 0
B: 0

CMYK color mode (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Key/Black) is what designers use for Print designs. Often times designers make the mistake of settling for Photoshop’s default black.

Lets take a closer look at the color values for Photoshop’s default black and see why it is not ideal for Print designs…

default_black

As you can see the RGB values are all set to zero which would be perfect for an on-screen design. Since this is for print, we will focus on the CMYK values that are found at the bottom right of the Color Picker:

C: 75%
M: 68%
Y: 67%
K: 90%

What this means for offset printing

In Offset Printing, the colors get separated on different plates based on the percentage of each color — the higher the percentage, the more ink coverage there is.

If we break down the CMYK ink percentage, it looks like this:

A Cyan plate with 75% ink:

Cyan

A Magenta plate with 68% ink:

magenta

A Yellow plate with 67% ink:

yellow

And finally, a Key (black) plate with 90% ink:

Black

 

All 4 plates will be overlaid to produce the default black:

4plates1

The total ink coverage is 300% (75+68+67+90). Determining the percentage of coverage depends on different factors like ink, paper and printer. But the maximum value should be 280%.

The default black is over 280% and there is a risk of over-inking — you’re at risk for ink smears or blurs. The risk grows when using the default black for smaller text.

Another problem can occur if the 4 CMYK plates are slightly unaligned. The text will look blurry or might even disappear when printed.

black2

So… never use the default Photoshop black for ANY Print Designs — unless you have too many clients and want to loose them quickly 😉

Avoid printing problems

For small text we will use 100K black which is also called CMYK black. To get a nice black, change the CMYK values:

C: 0
M: 0
Y: 0
K: 100

CMYK_black

By changing the 4 values, the printing process looks quite different. Instead of 4 plates, we only need 1 plate to keep the ink coverage under 280% which produces a crisp and clean result.

Simple change with big results!

However, if you want a deep black background, do not use 100K black. When the CMYK black is not used for small text, it looks “washed out” or like a dark gray.

Deep black

If you want to produce a deep black, a common way is to add either cyan or magenta to the 100K value. Every designer has their own recipe for the perfect black, but a recommended value is:

C:40
M:0
Y:0
K:100

This will give you a dark and cold black.

cold_black

If you want a little warmer black you can use 40% magenta instead of cyan:
C:0
M:40
Y:0
K:100

This will look deep but much warmer than using cyan in combination with black.

warm_black

 

Again there is no risk of overinking since the total ink coverage is 140% (100+40). Make sure to play with these values to find your perfect black because it can differ from printer to printer.

Conclusion

  • Avoid Photoshop default black (C:75; M:68; Y:67; K:90) for Print Designs.
  • Use CMYK black (C:0; M:0; Y:0; K:100) for text.
  • For a deep black background either mix cyan (for a cold black) or magenta (for a warm black) to the CMYK black.

I hope this helps! Feel free to share any additional tips on the color black in print design in the comments below.

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