Screen Colours vs Print Colours

01/07/19

Have you ever printed something and been disappointed that the colours on the page don’t match the colour on the screen?

It’s a pretty common problem and happens on just about every scale of digital print. It might surprise you to learn that even a lot of graphic designers struggle with the difference between screen colours and print colours, so here’s a little insight to help you understand why colours can be such an issue.

The fundamental thing to always keep in mind when looking at a digital proof for a print job is that screens create colours in a very different way to print.

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Screens are naturally black, and add light in three colours:

Red

Green

Blue

RGB

They are produced in different amounts to create a wider range of colours. when you have full showing of all three colours the result is white.

Printed colours usually start on a white background and add a mix of four colour pigments (cyan, magenta, yellow and black aka CMYK) to create a wider range of colours. If you mix cyan, magenta and yellow in equal parts you are left with black.

Cyan

Magenta

Yellow

Black

CMYK

This difference in methods for creating colour is the biggest factor in the difference beyond on screen colours and print colours. RGB allows for much brighter colours to be made more effectively, this is why colours that look really bright (almost neon) on screen often look either washed out or dull in print. A good designer will always consider what the main use of something being designed will be and try to design with the limitations of that application in mind. As digital print is used widely for a huge mix of products having the limitations of digital print in mind is always a good idea. Things like logos, which might be used in a wide range of applications, often present a particular problem as they are just as likely to be viewed on screens (like on a website) as printed on things like business cards or letterheads.

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Of course the limits of digital print are always changing and already there are a lot of printers on the market that can hit colours that traditional digital printers haven’t been able to. Some printers now come with an option to have a different ink setup that uses additional colours to allow a wider gamut of colours. For example, if a printer has an option for a colour configuration of CMYKLcLm (which adds light cyan and light magenta inks) it can generally hit a lot more lighter colours more accurately.

There are other factors in how a printer interprets a screen colour. These are connected to the RIP software that runs the printer, most of these will have various colour management options which can hugely affect the colours on a print. This is why test printing is so important, a good printing company will always run tests before sending a large job to print - this does increase costs, so it’s worth baring in mind that the cheapest service will often skip this and use automatic settings which will not necessarily give you the best result. If you have a particular set of colours in mind or want to see the colours for yourself before committing to a job it is always worth considering providing a recognisable colour reference (such as a pantone number) or asking printing companies about test print options - for a small fee many companies will provide you with a small sample print to make sure you are happy with print quality before ordering.

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When it comes to producing signs with difficult colours there are often other options to get the desired result. The most common of these is using contour cut coloured vinyl, this cannot be used for printing photos but anything that needs an area of solid colour (such as lettering or logo shapes) can be cut and pieced together from coloured vinyl. The more colours needed the more complicated and time consuming this is, but it’s a very common practice. In fact many smaller signage companies will only have a vinyl cutter and not a printer, although as digital printers become more affordable these companies are fewer and further between.

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