The Ultimate Guide to Designing with Black

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Whether you’re a graduate designer learning the tricks of the trade, a web designer delving into print or an accomplished graphics designer looking to broaden their knowledge, there’s always something new to be learnt when it comes to designing for print. One of those areas is how to approach using blacks in your design and knowing what it will look like when it comes back from the printers. Read on for a few hints and tips on how to create artwork containing black.

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Black is just black, right?

In web design, where you’re designing for the screen, black is black, no amount of Red Green and Blue. There are no hidden obstacles to catch you out (apart from those people with the brightness and contrast levels completely out of sync on their monitors!)

When designing for Print, the four colour CMYK process is used, where K (key) is the black ink alongside Cyan, Magenta and Yellow. But, there’s slightly more to it than that!

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Selecting Black in Photoshop

Photoshop’s default black setting is not ideal for print. Open up the colour picker and select the black you are used to using on a daily basis, look closely at the CMYK values and you will notice it is made up of:

Cyan – 75%
Magenta – 68%
Yellow – 67%
Black – 90%

There are three main problems this could cause:

Issue One, importing into Illustrator or InDesign

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Let’s say you’ve created the image above in Photoshop using the default black, and now you want to place it in your InDesign or Illustrator design document on a black background.

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You open up InDesign or Illustrator, draw the square on the artboard, fill it with the black swatch and place the artwork onto it. It all looks good and then goes to print.

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What you didn’t expect is it would come back looking like the above image on all 1000 copies of your printed flyer! The reason for this is the default Photoshop black is made up of a mix of all four colours as mentioned above, a rich black, whereas Illustrator and InDesign use the correct swatch of 0% Cyan, 0% Magenta, 0% Yellow and 100% Black. As you can see from the image, these two versions of black produce very different results.

Issue Two, total ink coverage is 300%

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Export your design to a PDF Document so we can use the Adobe Acrobat Output Preview tool to check over the file. If you turn on the Total Area Coverage option it will highlight areas with over 280% ink coverage as a potential overinking problem.

Issue Three, fine text will become fuzzy and illegible

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If you have created text in Photoshop with Photoshop’s default black, particularly any small type sizes or fine serif fonts, the chances are they will be very blurry or fuzzy and possibly missing any fine areas of type. The reason being the four sets of ink are being placed over the same area, along with any slight mis-registration causes a loss of detail mostly noticeable on these fine areas.

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The solution for all three problems is to ensure you always select the correct black in Photoshop by entering the appropriate numbers in the Colour Picker manually, by yourself.

Cyan – 0%
Magenta – 0%
Yellow – 0%
Black – 100%

By entering this combination you are specifying that you only want to use 100% of black and none of the other colours for this area of colour, resulting in the single pass of ink on this area.

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CMYK Black Is Not Quite Black

CMYK black (100% K) mentioned previously is great for text, allowing for a crisp and sharp reproduction. On large areas of flat black however, 100% K doesn’t really have much impact as black, it looks more like a dark grey, especially when the material is uncoated. The solution, to add a little extra colour to the mix, this is known as creating a Rich Black. The two most common Rich Blacks are those adding Cyan or Magenta.

Rich Cool Black
Cyan – 40%
Yellow – 0%
Magenta – 0%
Black – 100%

Rich Warm Black
Cyan – 0%
Magenta – 40%
Yellow – 0%
Black – 100%

There are many more variations floating around, including 60% rather than 40% and some using a combination of all four colours. Rich Black should ideally only be used on blocks of black and large titles as the two (or more) coats of ink will cause the problem outlined in issue three above on normal sized text.

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Don’t Ever Do This

Something to remember, never use Registration Black on anything apart from printer’s marks. Registration Black is a 100% mix of all four inks and should not be used at all on artwork items. Artwork containing registration black would likely be rejected by the printer.

The Five Blacks Summarised

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CMYK Black – 0C 0M 0Y 100K
The ideal black for text

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Photoshop Black – 75C 68M 67Y 90K
Rarely used, sometimes called upon as a form of Rich Black.

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Rich Cool Black – 40C 0M 0Y 100K
Rich black with a slightly cool blue tint.

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Rich Warm Black – 0C 40M 0Y 100K
Rich black with a slightly warm red tint.

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Registration Black – 100C 100M 100Y 100K
Used only for crop and registration marks.

Have you found a combination that provides a close match to true black? Post up your methods in the comments.

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