4-Color Process vs. Spot Color Printing

When you create printed products such as promotional items, chances are that you’ll use either 4-color process or spot color printing. Both processes are popular because they produce high quality items while keeping the price quite reasonable.

These two types of printing produce markedly different results, so it’s typically very easy to tell which process was used simply by looking at the colors within a printed design.

4-Color Process vs. Spot Color Printing

Notice how the "four-color process" image makes use of a multitude of assorted hues, while the "spot color" logo only uses varying shades of blue.

Here’s a brief description of each process that also explains how they differ from one another.

4-Color Process Printing

Four-Color Process ComicOpen up your Sunday newspaper and find the funny pages. If you look very closely at a full-color comic strip, you’ll see that the images are made up of tiny colored dots. There are only four different colors of dots, but together they create a wide spectrum of hues. This is four-color process printing at work. It’s the same principle upon which your home printer operates; commercial printers use an advanced form of the process that produces very high-quality images.

This process is also called CMYK color printing, after the four colors of ink it utilizes: cyan (C), yellow (Y), magenta (M), and black, also known as key (K). These four colors can produce nearly any color imaginable, including gradients and subtle blends. Each color is applied to the surface one-at-a-time in a layered fashion using four different printing plates. Note that since the inks are blended and printed at the same time, you might get very slight variations in color with each printing.

CMYK Colors

4-color process uses cyan, magenta, yellow and black to produce an incredible variety of nuanced colors.

Four color process is generally more expensive than spot printing, but it’s the method of choice when printing detailed color photography or extremely detailed illustrations that contain four or more colors.

Spot Color Printing

Instead of creating hues by blending inks during the printing process, spot color printing transfers solid fields of pre-mixed ink directly to the page or object. This means that the color will remain exactly the same with every print run.

Since they can’t achieve the same level of color variety as economically as four-color process, spot color designs contain only a limited number of colors (typically between one and three), each applied separately to the desired surface.

Many spot color inks are standardized using PMS (Pantone Matching System). PMS assigns a number to each of over a thousand different hues so that commercial printers can easily print a design in your color of choice. Even though PMS color inks are pre-mixed, their number is so enormous that nearly any color you want can be “matched” with a practically equivalent ink.

Pantone PMS Colors

The Pantone Matching System provides a massive selection of pre-mixed inks. Each color is assigned its own number. Source: Rocco Lucia

Images created using spot color printing tend to be bright and vibrant, but are limited in their use of color (although subtle effects such as gradients can be achieved by adjusting the opacity of design elements). The spot color process is also less expensive, making it a very popular choice for printing logos, text, and simple illustrations.


When weighing the pros and cons of 4-color process vs. spot color printing, consider how much color variety you require in your design. If expense is an issue, then it might be best to choose spot color process; this could mean tweaking a logo so that it only uses three or fewer spot colors. Some, on the other hand, will prefer the flexibility that 4-color process provides. Stick with whichever process is best suited for your design.

Posted in Printing Technology

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Printwand Staff
Author: Printwand Staff

Our marketing, design and printing experts are passionate about sharing their knowledge. We're eager to help make your vision a reality in print. Be sure to explore the rest of the Printwand blog for more reliable, easy-to-understand information.

2 Responses to “4-Color Process vs. Spot Color Printing”

  • 1
    Bob Lowe says:

    Thank you for the post. I wasn’t aware of the difference between 4-color process and spot color printing. I can see how the 4-color process could be cheaper but also a loss in quality. Spot printing seems to be a lot more consistent throughout the whole printing process.

  • 2
    Nash Rich says:

    I’m not color blind, but I feel as though as if I am because I have the hardest time understanding! My wife is an artist and I’m the musician and I’m trying to learn a little more about her world. I liked learning about the 4-color process because I’ve noticed the dots in newspapers and comics. I thought it was just a style, so it’s good to know there is a purpose behind it. Thanks!

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