Why is there colour variation from screen to print?

Disappointed at the colour result of print project

There is no question that colour is important, every colour has meaning and sets the mood and feel of any design job. So it's important to get it right - then why is it so easy to get wrong!

Spending 3 years in the print industry I learned very fast that it was something that could go wrong very easily.

Mainly due to a lack of understanding of what colour can and can’t do between the designing process and the printing process.

The result was inevitably disappointment from unmet expectations between the customer and the agency. 

I will never forget one of my first experiences getting an awesome design (I thought it was awesome) printed for the first time and being gobsmacked at the change in the colours from what I saw on screen.

I was told the change occurred because it was going from RGB to CMYK. Hmmm, what to what? The scary thing was that I was calling myself a graphic designer at the time too and I didn't know this!

There are some absolutes regarding colour that are non-negotiable.




Here is why -

To answer number 1.

A computer screen uses a different set of colours to a printer. RGB (screen) and CMYK (print). In simple terms - RGB means your colour is made up of red, green and blue. CMYK means your colour is made up of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black.

What this means to you is that some colours may be close to what you are after however some bright colours on screen will print ‘duller’, essentially because they do not have light shining through them.

Number 2 and 3.

A good example to use is a coffee shop... 

Ordering your favorite coffee at one cafe will taste different on another day or from another coffee shop even though it’s the same order! Colour works in the same way.

There are variations to the print that are out of anyone's control. If you ask any coffee maker, they will tell you that even the temperature of the coffee machine can affect the coffee. In the same way, the printer’s temperature can affect the printing inks.

Every coffee machine is different and is set to suit that coffee maker, so is every screen.

Eg. Your design may look blue on your screen then on the screen next to you, it’s purple.

Your chosen colours’ outcome can also be affected by the following factors to name a few:

●    The stock (paper) it is printed on can affect the colour outcome too. Some paper can be higher white than others even though it looks ‘white’ to the eye.

●    The finish. Eg. GLOSS or MATT stocks affect the outcome because they change the intensity of the ‘whiteness’ of the paper.

So how do I get the colour I am after?

There are definitely ways to assist the outcome. Without boring you with too much detail in this blog, here are a few ways...

  • Swatch books (pre printed cmyk values), much like paint swatches that have numbers attached to them get a closer result. Chances are, you don’t have one of these but a professional designer will.
  • Printed sample, not every print agency can offer this service. The sample you see may not be the same stock or process as the final result, especially if the printing is done offset (explained in part 2 of common pitfalls). This means the colours will be different on the sample.

Important Conclusion

The best way to resolve the issue is simply to 

keep a professional distance from the colour outcome. Yes, there are colour ‘No No’s’, but in seriousness, I have seen many jobs that should only take 1hr turn into weeks of back and forth only to go back to the first colour!

Opinions of what a certain colour needs to be are endless and can actually be a stumbling block to the process, an unnecessary burden to you and end up costing you more money than budgeted for.

There really is no right or wrong with some colour variants.

In my humble opinion - let go of sweating the small stuff! For your sake! There is a liberty in knowing there may be variants and being okay with that - it's not being told this that get's people in trouble.

I understand that some industries have a specific colour or Spot colour

(A specific colour value) that needs to be used, this will need to be provided to the designer before commencement of any project.

An experienced graphic designer should be creating your work using a swatch book and drawing on their experiences with colours that work or don’t work together. Let them do what they do best, that's what you are paying for. That being said - make sure they are experienced and not your cousins’ daughters’ friend.