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Why your brand colours may look different on screen vs. in print (And why your home printer might be making things more complicated)

There’s a high chance you’ve landed on this post because you’re currently stressing out about a piece of brand stationery or marketing you’ve printed which looks nothing like the colours of your brand on screen.

Your eyes aren’t playing tricks on you. As a brand and website designer, I get this question all the time: “Why do colours look different on screen vs. in print?” Let’s dive into this colourful conundrum and unravel the mystery together. Plus, we’ll talk about why your trusty home printer might sometimes feel like it’s making your life even more stressful…

The science behind the screen vs. print colour shift

First, let’s get a little geeky. Colours on screens (like your computer or phone) are made up of light, using the RGB colour model. This stands for Red, Green, and Blue. These colours mix together in various ways to create the spectrum you see on your device. Think of it like how you mixed paint at school to create new colours but with beams of light.

Now, when it comes to printing, we use a different u model called CMYK, which stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key (Black). This model is based on ink or toner, and it works by subtracting light. Instead of mixing light, you’re mixing pigments. It’s a bit like comparing apples and oranges—or should I say, comparing neon signs to watercolour paintings.

Here’s where things get interesting. The RGB model can produce a much wider range of colours (also known as a wider colour gamut) than CMYK can. Some bright, vivid colours you see on your screen just can’t be replicated exactly with ink on paper. This is why your digital design might look super vibrant on your laptop, but a bit duller or different when you print it.

Also, screens emit light, which makes colours appear brighter and even your individual preferences on how bright your screen is can make a colour look different.

Printed paper, on the other hand, reflects light. So, even the same colour can look different because of how it’s delivered to your eyes. On top of that (!) the colour of your paper can impact the colours you see printed on to it.

Whew, a whole world of colour chaos to think about hey?

How to get the best colour match

So, what can you do to maintain colour consistency? Here are a few tips to help bridge the gap between your screen and printed colours:

Use CMYK files for print
Your Graphic or Brand Designer will have provided your final files in one or both colour formats. If you’re only provided with RGB, ask for a CMYK copy to allow you to achieve the best colour result possible.

Choose the right paper
A bright white colour is always going to give you the best results but remember texture and finish of it plays a role; glossy paper might make colours pop more than matte paper, for example.

Print professionally
For brand stationery, marketing and packaging it is always best to opt for having a professional printer produce your items. Professional printers have a wealth of knowledge and experience. Don’t hesitate to ask for their advice on colour matching and print quality. They might have insights and suggestions that you hadn’t considered.

What about printing at home?

Let’s talk about those trusty home or small office printers. They’re awesome for quick prints and saving costs, but they’re not exactly professional production machines. Here’s why:

Ink quality
Professional printers use high-quality, precise inks that can reproduce a wider range of colours more accurately. Home printers? Not so much. Even though your printer will use CMYK inks, their inks are great for general use but might struggle with exact colour matching.

High-end printing services often calibrate their machines regularly to ensure colour accuracy. Home printers usually aren’t calibrated to the same standards, so the colours can be a bit off.

Paper types
The type of paper you use can drastically affect the colour output. Professional printers have a variety of paper choices designed to work with specific inks and finishes. Your home printer paper? It’s usually just whatever you grabbed off Amazon.

As a general rule, I advise all of my clients against using their home/small office printer for producing brand stationery, marketing or packaging.

What about Pantone?

You might have heard of Pantone printing, which uses a standardised colour matching system to ensure precise colour reproduction. While Pantone is fantastic for achieving exact colour matches, it’s seldom used for small business printing these days due to its higher cost. It’s often reserved for large-scale or high-end projects where exact colour consistency is critical.

To wrap up

You might be wondering about huge companies like Liberty or M&S manage colour, when they have such signature colours. They all have style guides and it’s crucial things look a certain way. Despite these guidelines, I bet if your grabbed a Liberty shopping bag and compared it to the purple on their website via your Phone, there will likely be a subtle difference.

Colour matters. I am a designer so of course, I believe the colours you choose make a difference for your brand, and ultimately it does matter. However, it is important to keep in mind the preciseness of colour each visitors sees on your website or thank you card is not important enough to break a sweat.

Blush pink will still be blush pink, sage green will still be sage. Your individual brand colours may always look a bit different on screen vs. in print, and that’s okay.

Becky x
Welcome to the BLD Blog

Hello! I’m Becky. A brand identity & website designer for passionate & ambitious small businesses. This little corner of my website is dedicated to sharing the 15 years of experience I have with brands, websites and of course running a small business.

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