To you, CMYK may look like a random jumble of letters; however, you can use it to bring your digital designs to life through printing. This color model is one of the most prevalent and well-known models for a reason, but should the model used by your home printer be used when printing packaging materials? 

Here’s what you need to know: 

What Is CMYK?

CMYK stands for cyan, magenta, yellow, and key and refers to a color model used in the printing process. In this model, “key” stands for black. The CMYK model may also be called “process colors” or “four process colors,” as only four colors are used. 

The four colors of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black are then blended together to create almost any color. They are blended by placing dots on the paper that eventually turns into a complete image. For example, placing cyan on top of yellow creates a green color.

The CMYK model is the most popular color model that’s likely used in your home printer. It’s also widely used for packaging printing due to countless benefits, including affordability, availability, and efficiency. 

How Does It Differ From Other Color Models?

In addition to the CMYK color model, there are two other color models you should know about: RGB and PMS. Here’s what you need to know about each of them: 

RGB Model

The RGB model stands for red, green, and blue. This color model is ideal for digital colors that aren’t physically printed. For example, your television screen and computer screen utilize the RGB model to show different colors.

The RGB model is ideal for digital spaces since it’s an additive model. This means that different combinations of the colors red, green, and blue are added to a black canvas to build a specific image. 

On the other hand, the CMYK model is a subtractive model, which means that different combinations of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black are added to a white canvas to remove other colors from the spectrum. 

As you can see, the RGB model isn’t ideal for printing as it would take a lot of ink to reach the natural white color of paper. So instead, the CMYK model is used more often than the RGB model in this scenario. 

PMS Model

The PMS model stands for “Pantone Matching System” and refers to a model that’s quite different from both CMYK and RGB. Instead of mixing different ink colors to achieve the desired color, one specific ink is used to achieve a specific color. 

This system was created by the company Pantone back in 1963 and allows companies to print specific colors with little to no variation in appearance. 

Pantone offers 2,161 different colors to choose from. You can check out what these different colors look like in real life by ordering a swatch book from the company. 

When Should You Use CMYK?

Based on what you know so far about the CMYK model, here are some circumstances in which using this model may be better than the alternatives:

  • If you’re looking for a cost-effective printing solution as the CMYK model is widespread, easy-to-use, and as a result, more affordable than the PMS system
  • If you’re looking to print multiple colors, CMYK might be your best bet, as different colors can be mixed more easily with the CMYK model than with the PMS system
  • If you’re looking for an efficient printing job, then you should consider using CMYK as it’s offered by many different packaging providers and doesn’t require any special attention or mixing before printing

When Should You Use PMS?

Conversely, here are some circumstances in which you may want to use the PMS model over the CMYK model:

  • If you’re looking for highly precise colors for logos and other branding materials since PMS offers more consistency by using a single color of ink compared to the CMYK model that mixes different colors of ink
  • If you’re looking for neon or particularly bright colors that cannot be achieved using the CMYK model
  • If you don’t mind paying more for your printing job as the PMS system is more specialized and involved than CMYK

Other Printing Considerations to Keep in Mind

You also need to consider:

  • The type of printing, 
  • The type of material, 
  • The material coating being used 

Type of Printing: Digital vs. Flexographic vs. Lithographic

There are three different types of printing: 

  • Digital
  • Flexographic
  • Lithographic 

Lithographic printing has been around the longest and uses a metal printing plate combined with a rubber blanket to effectively “stamp” the ink onto the material. This method of printing is highly precise and vibrant. 

However, you can only use it on smooth and flat surfaces. The metal printing plate also comes at a higher initial cost, so this printing method is ideal for high-volume orders. 

Next, there’s flexographic printing that uses flexible printing plates that are wrapped around cylinders. These cylinders are then dipped in ink and stamped onto the material. However, each different color requires a different printing plate. So the more colors you have, the more expensive your flexographic printing job will be. As a result, flexographic printing is ideal for designs with limited colors. 

Last but certainly not least, there’s digital printing. Digital printing is what your home printer uses — there are no printing plates involved. Instead, the image is created digitally, and ink is then applied to the paper. Digital printing is ideal for smaller batches since there are few initial costs. However, it can take longer than other types of printing.

That being said, digital printing technology is constantly improving. Experts believe that all printing will eventually become digital printing. So if you’re looking for variable or small run printing, digital is probably your best bet. 

Type of Material: White vs. Kraft

You also need to consider the nature of the material you’re printing on. For example, there’s kraft paper with a natural brown matte color and classic white paper. 

Kraft Paper

Printing on kraft paper is often more complicated since you’re working with a brown background instead of the white one assumed for CMYK printing. 

So while you’re still able to use CMYK printing on kraft paper, it might not look exactly how you imagined it. 

Generally speaking, the colors printed on kraft paper using CMYK printing will appear darker than they otherwise would on white paper. 

Specifically, colors like browns, greens, and oranges often end up looking quite different than what you saw on your white screen. 

White Backgrounds

PMS also assumes a white background when printing, so it’s also challenging to print on kraft paper using this printing model. Pantone colors are designed to be exact; however, the sample books cannot account for all different types of materials. 

For this reason, it’s always a good idea to order samples of your printed products before completing a large run. It’s also important to work with an experienced packaging provider to help ensure your colors are what they should be when printing on kraft paper. 

So while kraft paper may be more low-key and eco-friendly, it presents some challenges in the printing process. If you’re looking for easy and precise printing, you may want to consider choosing white paper instead. 

Some types of white paper can be just as eco-friendly as kraft by incorporating recycled materials; the paper is dyed white instead of remaining brown. 

Material Coating: Coated vs. Uncoated

Finally, you need to consider if the material is coated or uncoated. Coated paper has a nice shine, whereas uncoated paper has more of a satin finish. Ink behaves differently on these different finishes, and as a result, the same color could look differently on coated paper compared to uncoated paper. 

On uncoated paper, the ink gets absorbed into the material. On coated paper, the ink sits on the surface of the paper. As a result, coated paper is ideal for achieving bright colors and high-quality images. 

But no matter which option you choose, just make sure that you’re aware of how your colors will actually behave and look at the material based on its coating. 

How to Get the Best Color Match for Your Brand?

  1. Use a Physical Color Matching Book
  2. Order Samples
  3. Work With Your Packaging Provider

Getting an exact color match for your brand’s signature color is possible so long as you follow these three tips: 

1: Use a Physical Color Matching Book

You should use a physical color matching book when designing your prints. As you now know, colors show up differently on a digital screen that uses RGB differently than they appear on actual paper using either CMYK or PMS printing. 

Although Pantone has a physical PMS color matching book showing 2,161 colors in different coatings and finishes, the company has also created a color matching book for CMYK printing. 

The company created this product simply due to the demand and prevalence of CMYK printing. This handy booklet features 2,868 CMYK process colors and their corresponding values.

So before you move ahead with your design and printing processes, it’s important to visualize your colors in real life using a physical color matching book that fits with the specific color model you’re using. 

2: Order Samples

Sometimes no matter how much effort you put into your design to ensure that the color matches precisely with your brand colors, it doesn’t come out looking how you wanted it to. This is especially true for kraft paper that comes with unique printing challenges. 

For this reason, it’s always a good idea to order samples of your design before you go ahead with a large printing run. Ordering samples not only gives you a better idea of what the printing job will look like, but it also gives you a better idea of the quality of the packaging, the size, strength, etc. 

So whether you’re ordering custom mailer boxes, one-piece folder boxes, shipping boxes, or triangle document mailers, click here to order a complete sample kit from Box Genie

3: Work With Your Packaging Provider

Finally, perhaps most importantly, you should work with your packaging provider to achieve your ideal color match. Your packaging provider will have experience and insight to help you achieve the best possible color match. They will know exactly how their printing process works and how different ink colors show up on their materials. 

For example, Box Genie is a family-owned and operated packaging provider with decades of experience. Box Genie offers sustainable printing that’s done digitally using the CMYK color model based on the industry-standard GRACoL 2013 settings. 

So even though the CMYK color model does not support white ink, you can work with the team to find a design and overall product that meets your needs. 

Final Rundown

Now that you’re an expert on CMYK printing, it’s time to get started by matching your colors, creating a design, and having it printed onto packaging materials. 

If you’re ready to go, check out Box Genie’s online design studio to design your ideal packaging. Or, if you still have questions or concerns about your design, you can reach out to our experts for personalized assistance. 


Definition of CMYK | PCMag

What Is the Pantone Matching System (PMS)? | Techopedia

Digital Printing & Types of Digital Printing | Xerox

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