Diversified Labeling Solutions





Color plays a huge role in the design of labels that are meant to stand out, attract customers or portray consistent branding. One could even argue that color is the most important element for many label designs. At the same time, color is something that is incredibly easy to get wrong at some point in the label design and printing process. There are few things more frustrating to designers and label buyers than seeing and falling in love with a design on their screen, only to be disappointed when the final printed product doesn’t match that initial view. Luckily, with a little bit of knowledge and the help of a good label supplier, it is possible to create vibrant custom labels that will meet the expectations of your customers.


Let’s examine some of the basics of how to design and print with color, as well as how to avoid some of the common pitfalls.


 Understanding Color Basics


One of the most common mistakes when it comes to color is working an RGB file rather than with CMYK. Most graphics programs give you the choice of working either within the RGB or CMYK color space, but for printed labels, the file needs to be converted to CMYK prior to printing. To understand what this means, let’s look at what RGB and CMYK are.



RGB is short for Red, Green, and Blue. It refers to the primary colors of light that are used in monitors, tv screens or digital cameras. Colors that you see on the screens are created with varied intensity of these three colors (ranging from 0-255). The lack of these colors of light equals black, while all three combined at their maximum make white light. For example, a nice grassy green can be created using a Red value of 59, Green value of 133 and Blue value of 36. If all three colors are set to zero, the result is pure black. All three maxed out at 255 creates pure white and anytime all three are equal between 0 and 255 you get a shade of gray that varies in darkness depending on how high the numbers are.



CMYK stands for Cyan, Yellow, Magenta and Black. Black is represented by a K rather than a B as K is shorthand for the printing term key plate. These four colors are those traditionally used in printing, and they represent the amount of pigment that is used – stated as a percentage of how much of that color could be used. Unlike RGB where the maximum of all colors equals white, the opposite is true for CMYK where 0% of all colors equals white and 100% equals black. As with RGB, other colors are made up of various mixtures. That same grassy green in CMYK would be created with 79% Cyan, 25% Yellow, 100% Magenta and 11% Black (K).

Pantone® Matching System


The Pantone® Matching System is a proprietary color matching system developed by Pantone, LLC. The idea is that Pantone® or PMS colors can be accurately reproduced by any printer, anywhere in the world by using strictly defined combinations of Pantone’s 13 pigments (as well as black). Most people become familiar with Pantone® colors through the color decks, or swatch booklets that many designers and printers use. These decks provide a calibrated color swatch with the PMS color name (usually defined with PMS and a number) as well as the specific formula that makes up that color. Generally PMS colors are defined as coated or uncoated. A coated PMS color is meant to represent the color applied on a glossy substrate, while uncoated is a matte finish. There can be a significant difference in how these two versions of the same color appear.


Pantone® colors are most often used in branding situations where the very specific color makes up a large part of the company’s identity. For example, the yellow of McDonald’s arches (PMS 123) or the red of Target’s circle (PMS 186 C). One of the most famous uses of a Pantone color to create branding is Tiffany, who worked with Pantone to create and trademark their robin blue (PMS 1837 – the year Tiffany was founded). Tiffany blue is a proprietary color that isn’t even found in Pantone guides and cannot be used by other companies. You don’t have to be a huge corporation or develop an all new color to be specific about your branding and colors though. Many companies of all sizes use specific colors for their logos and branding, and these companies are sticklers for consistency. This is where PMS colors can come into play for your customers’ label printing.

Spot Colors vs. Process Colors

Most colors are printed with multiple runs of four-color (CMYK) ink, or four-color process printing. There are some Pantone® colors that can be printed using standard four-color printing. However, the vast majority of these colors cannot accurately be recreated with CMYK pigments. This is where spot colors come into play. A spot color is any color generated by an ink (pure or mixed) that is printed using a single run. With spot colors, additional inks are added to the printing process to guarantee a color match.

 How Your Colors Are Created in Print

Now that we have a basic idea of the color environments, let’s look at how colors are created when printing your customer’s labels. There are significant differences in how colors are printed, depending on the type of press that is used.

Flexographic Label Printing

In traditional four-color printing, colors are created by combining Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black (CMYK) pigments in varying amounts. With flexographic printing, this is done using flexible plates that must be created prior to printing. Each plate transfers one of the colors, layering the colors to create the final print. With plate-based printing, it is also possible to add additional spot colors such as Pantone inks. Overall, flexographic printing creates very clear, solid colors and exceptional print quality. And when spot colors are used, it is possible to exactly match colors.





Digital Printing

With digital printing, CMYK ink or toner is applied to the substrate in dots that are mapped out by the graphics software. These dots combine to create the final print and colors. The quality of these digital prints can vary. In many cases, you may not be able to tell the difference with the naked eye. But when you look closely, you can see how the dots have been used to create the appearance of different colors. While there are a handful of Pantone colors that can be recreated using CMYK, it is not possible to exactly match most Pantone colors with traditional digital printing. When a brand or design requires precise color matching or solid blocks of exact colors, traditional digital printing can fall short.

Liquid Electrophotography

Liquid Electrophotography (LEP) printing, like that used by HP Indigo technology is a digital print process that combines the benefits of plate-based and traditional digital printing. Like other types of digital print technology, LEP doesn’t require the creation of physical plates. With LEP a special electrically charged ink is placed onto a photoconductor plate and then transferred to a rubbery blanket before it is transferred to the print media. It is possible with LEP to add spot colors for precise color matching, and the print quality is in many cases indistinguishable from offset printing.




Getting Your Colors Right

Color on Your Screen v. Color in Print

The colors you see on your screen (which are made of light) can be significantly different than those that are seen in print. This makes it incredibly difficult to get a completely accurate simulation of the final label’s print colors from the RGB image on your screen. In fact, the colors that you see on your screen and those your coworker sees on their screen can even be significantly different, as there is very little consistency between displays. Even two screens of the same model can show two different colors due to variations in display settings or the environment the screen is viewed in.


Using a Pantone® color deck is one way to get an accurate representation of what the final printed color will look like. In this case, it is important to use an up-to-date and recently produced color deck. This is because the colors offered, as well as the formulas can change from year to year. And as the decks age the color can be affected, significantly changing the accuracy of your color swatch.

Print Media Affects Final Label Colors



When determining how your final label color will appear, you should also keep in mind that the label material can also affect the final color. The color, sheen, opacity and even material of your substrate could have a significant impact. Your label printer should be able to help you determine how this will affect the color.


If your label design includes white elements, these areas will usually be left blank in the print process. But if the label material is not true white, or is clear, those white areas will not appear as they do on your screen. In this case, you should work with your label printer to include white ink.

Formatting Your Label Design for Printing

We’ve already mentioned the importance of converting any graphics to CMYK prior to printing. It’s also important if you are designing your label with spot colors to be sure that these are formatted and output correctly.


If you are using Pantone colors, you should also be sure that your design software is correctly labeling them. As formulas change, it’s possible that your software may be referencing an older version, which can drastically affect your color output.


Label printers like DLS will have a prepress department that will doublecheck your files prior to printing. And we recommend that if there are any specific color requirements that you communicate this to be sure that everything is printed and formatted correctly.



Importance of a Label Proof

It’s always helpful to get a proof prior to the final printing. Not only should you request a proof of your labels to give you a last chance to double-check your copy and graphics, a proof can help you see how your final colors will look.


A soft proof or electronic file such as a PDF is a quick and easy way to see what your customer’s project will look like for approval prior to printing. The downfall of a PDF proof is that the colors of the printed piece may not exactly match what is shown on the computer screen.


A hard proof is a physical print that closely matches what the finished product will look like. This type of proof takes longer to produce and approve, but it provides a more accurate representation of what the final label will look and feel like.



Your Source for Outstanding Color Label Printing

When you work with DLS for your customer’s color labels, you can be assured of excellent color matching and print quality. Our print professionals and label experts will work with you to not only ensure that your files are correct, but also to determine the best print technology to meet your budget, time, color and quality needs.


We maintain a fleet of state-of-the-art digital and flexographic presses including HP Indigo 6900, aqueous inkjet and UV inkjet to provide quality printed custom labels.


And, if you have a customer who needs help designing your labels, our experienced graphic design team can serve as your graphic design department. Our fixed price concept development and design model is devised to make it easy for you to provide high-quality graphic design services to your clients.

Contact us for a quote, or help with your color label printing.