An Introduction to Spot Colours

For projects in which colour consistency or vibrancy is paramount, spot colours are the best choice.

Available in a host of shades, including metallics, pastels and neons, spots produce colours that are difficult or impossible to reproduce from four colour process. As such, spots are a great way to improve the quality of your prints.

What are spot colours?

At their simplest, spots are coloured inks that come premixed straight out of a tin, a bit like paint.

In litho (offset) printing, each spot colour has its own plate. Any number of spot colours can be printed on their own, but two spot colours are the most common. Spot colours can also be printed in addition to the usual four colour process (CMYK + spots).

Some digital presses also print spot colours. Ask your supplier if they offer this service.

A number of transparent spot finishes such as matte or gloss varnishes are also available.

Why bother?

• Accuracy

The main advantages of spot colours are vivacity (they can be very strong) and veracity (a spot colour will always appear the same).

Some colours can look plain muddy in CMYK. As we have already discussed in a previous post, strong oranges and greens are notoriously difficult to reproduce from four colours, as are pastels. For example, Pantone 375 is a lovely apple green spot colour. A printer would have trouble matching the vibrancy of that colour from CMYK.

Even if you have taken the time to painstakingly build a colour shade from CMYK, the wrong prepress settings applied by your print supplier can undo all your good work. A spot colour takes that variable out of the equation.

Many large companies will insist that their logo is reproduced from spot colours. This ensures that colours remain consistent from publication to publication and across different media.

• Quality

Printing in CMYK, tiny variations in registration (how the plates are lined up during printing) between multiple plates can introduce a degree of fuzziness. This is especially apparent with coloured type in a light weight. In contrast, the single hit of a spot colour will always produce a clean, sharp print.

For this reason, the most common use of spot colours is stationery. A business card or compliment slip is comprised of so few elements, the quality of reproduction becomes even more important. (Yet another reason why you should never buy a million bizcards online for a fiver, unless you plan to carpet bomb the town with them.)

• Finishes

Spot colours also give you the option of transparent spot UV (gloss) or matte varnishes. These are applied as you would another spot colour with their own plate.

Spot varnishes create an interesting contrast of finishes when used together or in combination with a gloss or matte laminate. Another option is to contrast varnish with paper, say for example a spot UV printed on an uncoated or matte stock.

• Cost

Surprisingly, printing in two spot colours can often be less expensive than CMYK, as there are fewer plates to set up and print (two versus four for CMYK).

• For the sheer hell of it

Spot colours are fun! Designing in two colours can yield more interesting results than in four. The right combination of spot colours and effects will also create prints that pop. Why not have a go?


The only spot colours you will likely encounter in Europe or America is the Pantone system. As with process colours, the company produces a set of reference guide books. Each individual spot colour assigned a name or number; for example, Pantone 375 is a nice apple green, whereas Pantone Rhodamine Red is a deep pink.

Each Pantone colour number has one of three suffixes: C for “Coated”, M for “Matt” and U for “Uncoated”. Each corresponds to the intended paper stock. Specify C for gloss, M for matt or silk, and U for uncoated or bonds.

There can be a surprising degree of variation between the same number with a different suffix. A printer can re-specify an unmatched colour choice at the prepress stage, but as with anything else, it is best to get this right yourself from the outset.

Where there’s blame, there’s a claim

Checking against the Pantone spot colour book gives you a fall back should your prints not turn out as anticipated. If there is a large variation between the colour book and final print, have a word with your printer about a discount or having it printed again at their cost. You will no doubt encounter bluster about “variations in paper stock” and so forth, but if you have taken the time to match a Pantone to the right stock, your printer is unlikely to have a leg to stand on.

Using spot colours

We will cover how to use spot colours in the next post. As per usual, we will also discuss common spot colour prepress problems and how to cure them.


It’s All Part of the Process

When comparing RGB colours with CMYK, a web designer’s first comment is usually, “Don’t the colours look dull?”

And they’re right. In comparison, print colours ARE much duller.

I could talk at length about the reasons why, but scientists have written papers and indeed forged careers from less. Summarised, a printed page relies on reflected light, whereas a screen beams light directly into your eyes. Boiled down still further: “Well, duh”.

There are a few things you can do however to make sure your printed colours retain their “pop”.

Like Spinning Plates

First however, a few words on a pressing subject: how printing works.

Print projects mostly utilise Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black inks in the colour model known as CMYK (don’t ask me where the K comes from) or “four colour process” (never say that printers lack imagination).

In lithographic (also known as litho or offset) printing, each of the CMYK inks corresponds to an inked metal plate. In digital printing, although plates are not used, the term “plate” often still applies. Multiple colours are created by overprinting these plates in varying percentages of density known as “tints”, 0% being no coverage and 100% being a solid colour.

Web colours however operate in the RGB (Red, Green, Blue) colour space. As you might have noticed, three into four does not go. Colour conversion is required.

Converting RGB to CMYK

Indesign colour palette

The Indesign Colour palette. The bottom two colours are RGB, as shown by the different icon to the right.

You can head prepress problems off at the pass by making sure you convert all colours to CMYK at the outset. Printers are lazy buggers and may not bother converting RGB artwork properly at the rip stage, making for some awkward questions when design elements disappear in the final copies. Likewise, do not rely on the accuracy of a printer’s colour conversions: random colours can result and RGB images will look yellow and wishy-washy when converted in-rip.

Quark Xpress and Adobe InDesign do a decent enough job of converting RGB colours to CMYK, but I find the colour conversion engine in Adobe Photoshop is the best for accuracy. Irrespective of the application used, never trust your design application to make the conversion; always check out the results afterwards.

Converting to CMYK

In Indesign, double click on the colour to bring up the Swatch Options. Change this option from RGB to CMYK, then close.

True Colours

The best way to ensure that your colours retain their pop is to keep their CMYK composition simple. A strong colour invariably uses as few printed plates as possible.

10 percent black

A pair of yellows from the Pantone Process colour book. Note how the addition of 10% Black (K) slightly dulls the right hand yellow.

Say for example you want a vibrant orange. The cleanest orange would be C 0% M 50% Y 100% K 0%. Note that only two plates are used: the Cyan and Black (K) plates are both 0%. Adding a 5% tint to either would only serve to dull the orange.

Keep this principle in mind when converting RGB into CMYK. If you are looking for strong colours, be wary of your design application adding stray percentages. The odd 1% tint here and a 3% tint there adds nothing, so knock them down to 0%.


Coincidentally, any plate with a tint of less than 10% may look patchy or dirty when printed. This is more apparent with large blocks of tinted colour, particularly tints of Black (K). For this reason alone, if you are looking for a clean print, it is worth considering removing any tints below 10%.

Paper Stocks

Another variable to consider if colour vibrancy is an issue is your choice of paper stock. Colours will “pop” on a gloss or silk stock, whereas a matt or uncoated stock will dull colours.

Colour Books and Proofs

You may hear a printer refer to “Pantone Process Colours”. These are not spot colours (which we will talk about another time), but simply CMYK colours given a unique number for selection and identification purposes.

If you are planning to do a lot of printed projects, it is worth investing in the Pantone Process Coated and Uncoated colour books. Although expensive, they will give you a good idea of how your colours will look on different stocks. Pantone also offer a Bridge colour book for converting RGB to CMYK. If you cannot afford to buy the books outright, ask your print supplier to lend you theirs.

And finally, as always: if in doubt, remember to ask for a printed proof.

A Guide to Fonts – Introduction


Whilst the days of web designers having only a handful of faces to call upon are thankfully gone, the methodology of managing and using web and print fonts is sufficiently different to throw up serious difficulties.

Fonts are a frequent source of print problems. Knowing the best practice for their use can spare significant prepress stress later on.

In this guide we’ll cover the basics: font file formats, how to source reliable fonts, the tools to manage them, and finally (and perhaps most importantly), chart the common font pitfalls at prepress.

A Guide to Fonts 1: Types

Print fonts are distributed in the following file formats:

  • TrueType (.ttf, with .ttc and .dfont variations)
  • OpenType (.otf)
  • PostScript

Of these, TrueType and OpenType are the most common. Older legacy print projects and type libraries often use PostScripts.


Invented by Apple in the 80s, TrueType was until recently the most common font format.

A rarer variation is the TrueType Collection or .ttc. This simply combines multiple TrueType faces into one file.

.dfont is variation of the TrueType standard for UNIX users. They work fine in Mac OS X (being UNIX based), but if you are a Windows user or intend to push artwork through a Windows based rip, they will not work.


OpenType is a more recent font specification drawn up by Adobe and Microsoft. The main advantage is that it features more information than TrueType; for example, it does not require a separate font file for glyphs and ligatures.

The name OpenType is something of a misnomer, as not all OpenType faces are created equal. Each OpenType file contains a level of user permission set by the original font vendor. These include:

  • Installable: the keys-in-the-bowl of permissions. The font can be embedded in a PDF for viewing, printing and editing, and permanently installed on the computer.
  • Editable: the font can be embedded in PDFs and be used to view, print and further edit the PDF.
  • Preview and Print: the font is embedded in a PDF purely for viewing on screen or printing. This is the most common permission setting and is the lowest level needed to output a job using an OpenType face.
  • No Embedding: the font cannot be embedded for love nor money and is thus largely useless for print. Stay away!


An Adobe invention, PostScript was the original mathematically described (as compared to purely bitmap) font format. Less common than they used to be, there is still a good chance that you will encounter a PostScript font or two if updating an older job.

A single PostScript font is distributed in two files, a bitmap (screen) and outline (printer) file, both of which should be present in the same folder when installed. The bitmap file typically uses the font name, whereas the outline file uses a shortened variation of the font name. You will need both parts for the font to function.

A Guide to Fonts 2: Sourcing

Buying Fonts

For large projects or long term clients, consider buying in fonts. Although costly on the face of it, a font bought from a good foundry will be reliable and may save a couple of hours’ worth of labour in the long term.

Choose a bespoke typeface wisely and other designers will have difficulty in matching it – a handy way of locking you to that client and discouraging “in house” design.

There are plenty of resellers with searchable online catalogues. Remember to price match across different resellers; sometimes it can be cheaper to buy direct from the foundry.

Many resellers and foundries offer font collections for a discount. One of the biggest, Adobe Font Folio, contains 2,400 fonts and includes some of the most used faces in the industry. Don’t get too excited though; like everything Adobe nowadays it does not come cheap, weighing in at a wallet-pummelling three grand.

A cheaper option is to keep an eye out on Ebay or Amazon for second hand font collections. Old or outdated collections they may be, but a font is a font is a font (as long as they work).

Google Fonts

Google Fonts has become the go-to resource for web designers. If you seek typographic commonality between web and print projects, Google Fonts is just the ticket. Their faces are not hobbled by usage restrictions, so you are free to use them as you see fit.

For print applications, the font files must first be downloaded. Build yourself a collection, then select “download as Zip”. The result will be a folder of .TTF and .OTF files that can be installed for use in InDesign and Quark.

One thing to be aware of is that Google Fonts are generally optimised for web viewing, not print. Kerning and line spacing can look fine on screen but appear odd when printed. Also, the faces are not print industry standard and many of the old stalwart faces are not available.

Other Free Font Resources

The web does not lack for free font resources. From a prepress perspective, however, some are most definitely better than others.

Two quality open source font projects are and Both offer a range of faces with the advantage of open source licences, so you can do what you will with them.

Be wary when downloading fonts from popular free sites such as, or similar. Often the provenance of individual fonts is difficult to ascertain, and the terms of their licences unclear. You should also check the fonts are not demo or hobbled copies – see Part 4 for more.

A Guide to Fonts 3: Management

Managing Your Faces

With time a print designer can acquire a serious number of fonts. Installing and running them all at once can become a resource hog, slowing your computer to a crawl. That’s where a decent font manager comes in.

Mac OS X comes with Font Book installed. Offering basic installation, preview and on/off functions, it is limited and can be frustrating to use.

Extensis Suitcase is the industry standard. Available on both Mac and PC, it features excellent previews and reliable auto activation extensions with Adobe applications and Quark. At over £100 a licence per seat, however, Suitcase is an increasingly expensive luxury.

A decent recent rival on the Mac is FontCase. Elegant and featuring auto activation, the application is more palatably priced at £30 per seat.

Other Font Software

Font Doctor is an excellent font utility, organising your scattered fonts into collections and repairing corrupted faces.

A Guide to Fonts 4: Problems and Solutions

PostScript Problems

A common problem with old PostScript fonts is missing components. Like any old person, PostScript fonts can do a fine job as long as they are still all there. If the bitmap font file is missing, the font will not be available to select or may appear jagged on screen. If the outline font file is missing, your artwork will print incorrectly.

If your PostScript bitmap and outline files have become disassociated for whatever reason, locate and place both file parts into the same folder. Remember: when collecting artwork to send to repro, double check that both file parts are present.

FontDoctor is useful for picking up the pieces of a PostScript font and putting them back together.

Preview or Demo Faces

Many fonts found online are preview copies. You can usually tell a preview copy straight away, as the odd character may be missing and replaced with the word PREVIEW, or with tiny messages from the vendor. If you can avoid using these characters, then by and large your artwork will be okay to output.

The exception is OpenType demo fonts. These can have their permissions set to “no embedding” in a crude but effective attempt by the vendor to drive sales of the full typeface. Often you will receive little warning that the font intends to cause trouble until you get a dialogue in InDesign or Distiller saying the font cannot be embedded.

Text-To-Curves (a.k.a the last resort)

Occasionally a designer will insist on supplying a preview font, or a PostScript font with the essential outline part missing. Often the mistake is only revealed at the output stage, and by then it’s all too late.

The last resort of the desperate prepress designer is “text-to-curves”. This involves going back to the original Quark or InDesign artwork and converting text into artwork shapes, line by line.

Remember to save your document as a different version if you go down this path, as your text will be rendered uneditable. Also, if you totted up the chargeable time spent going through the artwork and laboriously converting every word, it would likely have been cheaper to have simply bought the typeface.

Moving Text

Have you opened an InDesign or Quark file and the text appears to have moved? Has the position of the baseline changed, or text boxes reflowed for no reason? Like as not the wrong font format has been activated.

Designers love to mix cross-ply and radial tyres. If you have TrueType, OpenType and PostScript versions of a face, then activate one version at a time, not all of them at once. Try flicking between TrueType, OpenType and PostScript versions to see which version was used when the document was originally set.

Wandering text can also happen with fonts supplied by different type foundries. Font Book or Extensis Suitcase can serve up information about the fonts’ original foundry.

Fat Text

Are you experiencing areas of what appears to be emboldened text in your prepress proofs or printed copies? I like to call this “Fat Text”.

Fat Text occurs where text intersects with other page elements featuring transparencies, such as PSDs or TIFFs with alpha transparency. If graphics are placed on top of text in InDesign or Quark, even if only nominally, the PDF writer will convert the crisp vector text into blocky bitmap data, losing detail in the process.

Fortunately, curing Fat Text is easy. Return to the InDesign or Quark document; select all the text boxes and bring them to the front. Re-output the PDF and text will remain uniformly crisp when printed.


PDF with fonts not embedded

This PDF contains two faces: the ubiquitous Comic Sans (a Windows system font) and Flemish Script at the bottom. The Flemish Script has been substituted.

Are fonts in your PDF being swapped for different typefaces?

Are fonts changing appearance or moving when you open the PDF in another application, or on another computer?

Or worse, are your printed copies showing a different or garbled typeface?

Chances are that you have fallen foul of font substitution.

I’m a substitute for another guy

A PDF with embedded fonts

The same document, but this time both fonts have been embedded in the PDF and appear correctly.

Font substitution occurs when a face used in a PDF is, for whatever reason, not available. The reason is simply that a particular font is not installed on the host computer or device.

Substitution can also happen within the same computer if a face used by the writing application is not available to the PDF viewer, perhaps due to a system conflict or a naming error within the font file itself.

Difficulties often occur when documents are ported between platforms. Artwork tends to be created on a Mac, whereas prepress rips are usually Windows based. Small differences in the font handling methods of each platform, or even the individual font files used, are magnified.

I look pretty tall but my heels are high

The Fonts dialogue in Adobe Distiller

Font options in Adobe Distiller. The Embed All Fonts option is top left.

Fortunately this problem is easily resolved.

Double check the Fonts settings in the application you are using to write the PDF, i.e. Quark, InDesign, Distiller, etcetera. Is the “Embed All Fonts” option checked? If not, put a big tick in that box.

Embedding fonts is exactly as it sounds: the typeface is written into the PDF. Rewrite your PDF and the problem will be cured, irrespective of final destination.

The simple things we do are all complicated

The alternative remedy is to install the required fonts on to every computer used to view the PDF. You will be forced to rely on the technical knowledge of the receiver (usually poor if they are a client) and also trust that they will use the same version of the typeface as you (if they are a printer, then probably not).

For those two reasons alone, this solution should only be considered as a last resort. And if embedding is not an option, you may be better off revisiting your choice of font. The chances of getting your PDF through a prepress flight check without it being rejected are slim to nought.

I look pretty young but I’m just backdated, yeah

Many prepress font problems can be avoided by adopting embedding as best practice. The file size penalty for your PDF is negligible and the danger of unexpected text maladies is vastly reduced.

The only time that a font cannot be embedded is when the thorny issue of licensing rears its ugly head. But we’ll discuss that – and what you can do about it – in a future post.

White Lines (Don’t Do It)

A common yet infuriating prepress problem is the appearance of fine lines in print ready PDFs.

“That’s okay,” designers say, confidently sipping at their skinny mocha lattes for punctuation. “That’s just a display issue in Acrobat.”

Well hold on there cowboy, often it is. But sometimes these unexpected lines indicate faults that can only be addressed within the artwork.

Hold The Line

Fine lines in a print ready PDF

Look closely and you will see two fine lines bisecting this image. But will they print?

Before we wade into that quagmire, however, let’s do a test. A quick way to see if we are grappling with a display issue is to use Acrobat’s Marquee Zoom Tool (i.e. the magnifying glass). Zoom right in on the line: if it disappears or appears very fine at full magnification, your PDF is likely okay to print.

Fine lines in a print ready PDF when zoomed

Here is the same PDF zoomed in to 6400%. The lines are still there, but are very fine. It’s a tough call as to whether you will see them when printed.

If doubts persist, print out the page and check again for lines.

If you don’t have access to a printer, try rasterising the PDF in Photoshop. Open the PDF in Photoshop as you would any other file; in the dialogue that follows, choose the relevant page, then choose CMYK and a healthy resolution, say 300-600dpi. Photoshop’s rasterisation engine is pretty solid, and lines appearing here will likely be duplicated in the prepress rip.

Failing that, try a different PDF preset. I tend to find that Highest Quality Print in InDesign or Distiller creates the least amount of trouble, although it does generate a jumbo PDF.

Lines still there? Well mister, yo’ in a whole heap o’ trouble. But t’ain’t no reason ter git yer britches in a bunch. Read on for why.

Thin Line Between Love And Hate

The answer likely lies within your original InDesign or Quark artwork.

Nine times out of ten the reason a line appears is due to the PDF interpreter getting in a twist whilst flattening transparent elements.

The lines are most often white because the PDF interpreter knows it is making a hash of things and is attempting to cover its tracks. White line + white page = no error, you see? (And they say computers aren’t intelligent.) Great, except when your page background is not white.

When two or more transparencies meet over a coloured background, lines of stress occur. Remember: one or two overlaid transparent elements = good, three or more = bad.

This becomes even more likely if the files involved are of different formats or sources (a transparent bitmap PSD and a vector EPS, say). Throw a drop shadow into this mix and try to write a PDF, then stand back and watch as a grand’s worth of Mac equipment emits sparks.

So, what to do?

Parallel Lines

First things first. Open your document in InDesign or Quark and examine the errant page. Where are the elements that use transparency? These can include:

  • Bitmap image files using transparency (usually PSDs in InDesign or TIFFs with alpha transparency in Quark)
  • Vector files with transparent backgrounds
  • Any shapes or text with effects such as shadows or feathered edges.

InDesign Tip: Select Window > Output > Flattener Preview, then flick through the various options to highlight transparent objects or complex regions.

InDesign flattener preview

InDesign’s Flattener Preview is hugely useful in highlighting potential problems

Quark Tip: Balls to you, sonny, you’re on your own.

Once you know the beast, you can begin to tame it.

I Walk The Line

Often the easiest solution becomes apparent when you compare PDF to artwork. Do the PDF lines correspond with the edge of boxes holding transparent elements in InDesign or Quark? Bob’s your uncle.

Think of the lines as faults between tectonic plates, indicating stress. Moving box edges so they no longer intersect with one another alleviates the pressure. If that isn’t possible, drag the box edge to fall in an area of white space, or set the box to completely fill the page.

This “quick fix” can be a pain in the proverbials if design elements start moving around. But hey ho, with a small amount of faffing you will at least have a functioning PDF. The alternative is much worse: wholesale artwork reconstruction.

The End Of The Line

Failing that, you must look to simplify your artwork in InDesign or Quark.

This is the nightmare scenario, granted, but let’s face it, the reason you have reached this point is due to the complexity of your artwork. Reduce the leg work for the PDF interpreter and you are more likely to achieve successful output straight off the bat.

As we said before: one or two overlaid transparent elements = good, three or more = bad. Working to this end, consider rationalising your artwork by asking yourself the following:

  • Can your layout be achieved with less elements? Best practice is to montage all images in one Photoshop document, then import them as a single graphic into InDesign or Quark, not as three or four separate images with edges feathered in InDesign.
  • Can you remove unnecessary shadows or feathers?
  • Can you apply transparency effects to an image in Photoshop, or in InDesign, not both? Applying multiple effects to a single object in two or more programs is a quick route to trouble.

No Line On The Horizon

The moral of this long and somewhat turgid story, if there is one, is that transparency can be a great effect if used sparingly. Go mad with the alpha channels however and you store up problems for the output stage.

Designing simply but smartly will save spadework throughout a project. You may also save digging yourself into a prepress hole.

Got a tip? Add them in the comments below…