A Designer’s Guide to Working With CMYK Black

It's important to know that when designing for print, you have to make sure you follow the CMYK black specific protocols to ensure your colors translate from digital to the printed product.

The world of print runs on the CMYK color profile, aka C= cyan, M= magenta, Y= yellow and K= black. The reason the letter ‘K’ is used is that it is the last letter of the word “black” and is not occupied by another color. These colors can be used on their own or in combinations to create endless shades of colors, including black. Considering these colors are produced by printing separate layers on top of one another, each color profile is broken down into percentages of each CMYK. This means that there are infinite variations of the color black that can be made using CMYK, but for printing, you want to use specific CMYK Black formulas.

What is the issue with printing in black?

When you think about the color black, you probably just assume it’s one simple color with no other shades. You would be wrong. When it comes to printing, there’s a little more to it than just selecting the default black option. To ensure your blacks translate from digital to print, follow this guide to CMYK black. A common misconception is that printing in 100% K, or 100% black, is how you achieve the highest quality color black. Surprisingly, using 100% K will result in a dull, washed out, flat look which is also known as “Flat Black”.

The way to get a richer, deeper black is to add C, M, or Y to the mixture to get a nicer look.

A deeper look at the different CMYK black variations used in printing

Flat Black ( C 0% M 0% Y 0% K 100%)

Flat black, also known as plain black or true black, is not the darkest black that you can print, though if you do not adjust the compound of colors, this will be the default. It’s important to note that true black may look black on the screen, but once printed it will produce a dark grey/black color.

True black is ideal for thin lines and text.

Tips for designing with CMYK Black.
Flat Black                         Rich Black

Rich Black (C 50% M 50% Y 50% K 100%)

Rich black is achieved by adding values of CMY. It doesn’t matter what values you use, as long as you keep it consistent throughout your work. The above color combination is just one of the many options.

Two frequently used rich black formulas are:

  • C 60% M 40% Y 40% K 100%
  • C 40% M 30% Y 30% K 100%

Considering the many variants of rich black, you can use this color in most cases except for fine details such as line art or small text. The variations in plate registration between the 4 colors of CMYK can cause slight color shadows to appear around the text. You may have seen this in newspaper printing.

Registration Black (C 100% M 100% Y 100% K 100%)

This black is achieved by printing 100% of all CMYK on top of each other. Registration marks are used to ensure all of the printing plates are aligned, and should never be used in your design as the ink layers are too heavy on the paper.

Registration black is generally used for registration marks on documents that are being sent to the printers. When 100% of all four colors are printed on top of each either, the end result is muddy.

Tips for designing with CMYK Black.
Flat Black          Rich Black      Registration Black

Cool Black ( C 50% M 0% Y 0% K 100%)

Cool black can be achieved with a percentage of cyan anywhere between 20%-80%.

This type of black is most commonly used when a cold-feeling is required.

Tips for designing with CMYK Black.
Flat Black           Rich Black          Cool Black

Designer Black (C 70% M 50% Y 30% K 100%)

Designer black is made up of a total area coverage equaling 250%.

This is one of the most commonly used types of black as it is very rich and will suit most applications.

Tips for designing with CMYK Black.
Flat Black           Rich Black           Designer Black

Golden Black (C 0% M 0% Y 60% K 100%)

Golden black can be achieved using a percentage of yellow between 20%-80%.
This type of black is used when going for a warm and earthy feeling.

Tips for designing with CMYK Black.
Flat Black           Rich Black            Golden Black

Warm Black (C 0% M 60% Y 0% K 100%)

Warm black can be achieved using a percentage of magenta between 20%-80%.

This type is best used for product based prints.

Tips for designing with CMYK Black.
Flat Black           Rich Black          Warm Black

Printing in Black Best Practices

Adjust the CMYK

If you do not adjust the values of colors, a program defaults to 100% K in printing.

Be consistent

When designing, you should keep in mind which blacks have been chosen and be consistent. If you mix multiple blacks the difference will be apparent.

Place your order correctly

Keep in mind that if an order is placed for black and white then any black will automatically be printed in “Dull Black”. If you wish to print with any of the other above shades of black, you must select color printing.

Do you use much CMYK black in your designs? Let us know in the comments below!

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Jackie Vlahos is the Content Specialist at Printi. She is an expert in design, marketing and anything in between. When she's not blogging her life away, she can be found with a camera in one hand and a coffee in the other.

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