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InDesign Basics: The Beginner’s Guide to Color

tutorials , , InDesign Basics: The Beginner’s Guide to Color

Having a basic understanding of color is the key to confidently creating documents for print or digital in InDesign. In this bitesize beginner’s guide we’ll take a look at:

  • The basics of color theory, including the three main color models – RGB, CMYK and Spot Color
  • How you can change and manage InDesign’s color mode

1. What is RGB Color and When Do I Use It?

‘RGB’ stands for Red, Green and Blue. RGB color is rendered through the emission of light from the screen of a digital device.

RGB color colour indesign

The light generated by your device’s screen, so whether that’s a desktop or laptop computer, a tablet, or an eBook reader, is made up of red, blue and green light, which combine in different ways to create different colors.

Because RGB color is created via colored light, not colored ink, it is optimised for digital and web design, not print design. So, you should only be looking to use an RGB Color Mode when creating designs for digital publishing (e.g. eBooks) or for online use (e.g. web banners).

Skip to the end of the page to find out how you can adjust InDesign’s Color Mode…

2. What is CMYK Color and When Do I Use It?

CMYK color is very different to RGB color, as CMYK is based on a combination of coloured inks, not light.

‘CMYK’ stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Key (which is Black). These four colours are the base inks which can be combined to create a huge spectrum of different colors.

CMYK color colour indesign

Because CMYK is based on a combination of colored inks, it’s ideally suited for creating documents for print.

So basically, whenever you’re working on a document you think at some point will be printed in some way or another, whether that’s at home, in-office or through a commercial printer, you should always be working in a CMYK Colour Mode.

When you set colours in your InDesign document to CMYK color swatches, you create a Process Separation. What does this mean? This means that all the CMYK colours on your layout will be printed onto one plate during the printing process, in one single print run. Because CMYK color can be printed in one go, on a single print run, this keeps the printing process efficient and the cost of the print job low (depending on the print volume).

3. What is a ‘Spot’ Color and When Do I Use It?

What can be mind-boggling is that CMYK is not the only type of colour model that is suitable for printing. You can also use something called Spot Colors in your print designs.

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OK…so what’s a Spot Color? When you define a color in your InDesign document as a Spot Color, the color will be pulled onto a separate printing plate and the color will have to be printed during a separate print run. This is called a Spot Separation.

So, when would you want to use a Spot Color?

This can be useful if you want to ensure that a particular color is going to be printed very accurately, without any variation, and if this is what you’d like to achieve you can set the Spot Color as a Pantone Color.

Pantone is an international color-matching system, that gives standardised colour pigments a unique number. Pantone colours are more complex than CMYK colors, and can be made up from a combination of 13, rather than only 4 (for CMYK), base pigments. As a result you can source more unique and special colors from the Pantone catalogue.

pantone RGB CMYK Spot color colour indesign

You can also use a Spot Color in your designs when you want to print a special kind of ink, like metallics or flourescents, which don’t feature in the range of CMYK options.

4. OK…But When Should I Use CMYK and/or Spot Colors in InDesign?

Let’s simplify the CMYK and Spot Color systems, and break down when you would use either of the models or a combination of both on your InDesign work…

…If you’re creating an InDesign layout that uses more than three colours you shouldn’t normally need to use any Spot Color, unless like we’ve just talked about, if you want to create a particularly special color effect with a Pantone, metallic or fluorescent. In most cases, you should be looking at just setting your color in CMYK.

This is because the printer would have to perform a separate, additional print run for each Spot Color you apply to the document. This adds time and money to the print job. So if you’re creating something in full-color, you can feel confident that setting your whole document in CMYK is the best way to go.

CMYK color colour indesignIf you do want to use a Spot Color in your design and keep your printing costs down, the best thing to do is create a black and white document which just uses one single pop of color, which you can set as a Spot Color. And because you’re not printing a full-color layout, that’s going to keep the print job more economical, particularly if you’re printing in large volumes.

If you’re still feeling a little confused about color – that’s OK, it is a bit confusing – just remember that 9 times out of 10 CMYK color is the way to go!

And the other key thing to remember is that you should never print in RGB color, unless you want some very unpredictable results. And you should only really need to use Spot Colors in special instances.

5. How Do I Adjust the Color Mode in InDesign?

When you first create a new document in InDesign, you can adjust the Color Mode of the document by setting the Intent of the document to Print (CMYK), Web (RGB) or Digital Publishing (RGB).

By choosing Print from the Intent drop-down menu, InDesign automatically sets the Color Mode of the new document to CMYK. All the default colours stored in the Swatches panel are set as CMYK Color Swatches.

new document window intent

However, this doesn’t actually prevent you from creating new Color Swatches that are RGB (not suitable if you’re creating for print) or Spot Color (can be OK, depending on your desired print result) swatches, or prevent you from placing graphics into your InDesign document that have an RGB colorspace.

As you work on your print documents you need to keep an eye out that you’re sticking to CMYK colours. And the best way to do this is to manage colour in InDesign, which you can do from the Swatches panel (Window > Color > Swatches).

Click to find out more about creating InDesign documents or How to add a bleed to your print designs. To find more useful InDesign tips and tricks pay a visit to our beginner InDesign tutorials page.