Taking Your Web Design to Print: Color Hints


If you have a website and need to develop printed collateral to go with it, here are a few notes on the process that will hopefully save you time and money.

Color Gamut of Print vs Screen

While the color output of your website ultimately depends on a user’s monitor/device, generally it will be quite good and in the “millions of colors” capacity. Gamut is the technical term that describes the range of color produced as well as what colors are rendered well if at all. The gamut of the average screen is pretty good, and being that monitors are light emitting devices, they can really make things “pop” even using subtle textures and changes of color. Gradients for example can look great on monitors!

But you may notice that when going to print that same website or image, things flatten out a bit. Colors can get muddy, or the overlaid design element that was “just right” on screen is now almost invisible. What gives? The fact of the matter is that printing is a very technical and variable process, and rarely does printing the exact web design (at print resolution) produce a piece that “looks just like the website”. Every single printer will have a different gamut and it is part of the designer’s task to built the piece so that it will print well, and even then it may require many test prints and print checks on-scene at the final hour. Typically printers (be it desktop or professional) use the standard four colors of cyan, magenta, yellow, and blank “CMYK” to build all the hues for the print. This produces a wide gamut for the money but will not produce every color of the rainbow! Perhaps the easiest to see example of the shortcomings of the CMYK gamut is a bright green or purple.

To address your color gamut problems from web to print: choose an excellent printer early on, make many test prints on your laser or inkjet, and when necessary be prepared to spend a little extra to get a spot color (separate ink, eg bright green) when it is important to do so.

Color Consistency

Here is one area where print design can thoroughly beat the pants off of webdesign: every piece that comes off the press is going to have the same color. Contrast that to walking into the computer or television store with all the screens facing the aisle, and inevitably they all look slightly different. A monitor can be tweaked to be brighter or darker, more or less contrast, and can be set to look more or less red, blue, or green.

A light yellow page background may look brown on a different computer, and be all but invisible on another. Short of doing the best possible to make it look acceptable on a variety of displays, there is really nothing you can do to control the situation 100%. And you wouldn’t want to, as each user needs to be able to adjust their display to fit their eyesite, location, and preference.

But a printed piece is different. A business card or promotion held in your hand (off the same print run) will have the same color in Scottsdale Arizona as would another in Madison Wisconsin. If bright green lawns are the sales pitch, everyone is going to get that bright green mailer!

Designing Collateral for the Website

In summary, when designing a print piece for a website you must keep in mind that your color gamut is going to be a bit more restrictive. Add to that the non-glowing medium of ink on paper, and those test prints are going to be critical in making adjustments to your colors. You will probably have to make subtle gradients and transitions much more pronounced so that they show up effectively. You may be disappointed to see that the richness of some colors or combinations is not as rich when reproduced in CMYK and no longer as attractive. Don’t despair though, you can print with spot colors (find the PANTONE number for the color & paper you want to reproduce) or simply create a new look for the print work that is similar but not exactly matching the website. There is no rule that full-width high color websites need promotional material that is the same. And frankly, unless you have a good printer who can work with you, there is a real possibility of being disappointed in the finished piece. Maybe their press color is running hot (high on Magenta) and your “beach volleyball” is going to become “lobster volleyball”! But hey, at least it will be consistent across all 10,000 fliers, right?

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