Picture this: You need an image for a project, and the deadline is looming. You download a cool illustration from iStock, place it in your layout and send it off to the printer. An hour later, the printer phones you back. “Excellent,” you think, “my print job is done!” But nooo, the printer is calling to let you know that your file contains 15 spot colors, and if you really want 15 different plates made and run through the press, it’s going to cost you at least ten times more and take a whole week to finish. There goes your budget and your deadline.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?!? Spot colors? How did those get there? And what are they, anyway?

Spot color generally refers to a custom color that is printed with its own ink. By contrast, process colors are typically the four inks (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) used in offset printing to produce all other colors. Spot color can also be used to refer to non-standard inks such as fluorescent and metallic, as well as clear varnish, or anything else that requires its own printing plate.

A spot color doesn’t have to be fancy; it can simply be a single plate in addition to black. You see this in phone books, for example: All the type is black, but the display ads might have a blue illustration or type treatment. The blue color is only used in certain “spots.”

Whether you’re printing a phone book or a glossy magazine, the thing to remember about spot color is that it requires a separate plate. So in the phone book example, the printing job would use two plates: black and blue. In the story above, the job would require 15 different plates.

So what can our poor designer do about all those spot colors? Well, they probably shouldn’t be there in the first place, but we’ll get to that in a minute. When you place an iStock vector EPS file in your layout program, any spot colors will show up in the color swatches palette. In Adobe InDesign, for example, you can see all of the spot colors (again, think “separate plates”), with their respective names when you view the panel by list. Spots are indicated by a round dot inside a square to the right of the color name.

InDesign spot colors

If you want to change the spot colors to process colors, and thus make it suitable for regular 4-color printing, you can do one of two things: Access the Ink Manager from the Swatches panel or go to Window> Output> Separations Preview and choose it from the flyout menu. In the Ink Manager dialog box, click “All Spots to Process.”

The other thing you can do is to convert the swatches themselves by selecting all the spots in the Swatches panel (Shift-click to select more than one at a time), then choosing Swatch Options from the flyout menu. Under Color Type, select “Process.”

Spot color for contributors

Why would you use a bunch of spot colors in your illustration if you knew how much trouble it would cause our poor designer friend? There could be any reason, but I’m guessing it’s simply a lack of understanding. Illustrator has a ton of choices when it comes to color libraries, and it’s tempting to try them all. Pantone®, a widely-used color matching system, shows up in Illustrator in 13 different color libraries!

I can think of no good reason for a stock illustrator to use Pantone colors. These are specially mixed, proprietary colors that are specified by designers for a specific purpose. For example, The FedEx® logo uses Pantone 2685 for the purple, and 021 for the orange. Using these specific swatches ensures that their brand identity will be consistent, and their logo instantly recognized anywhere it’s printed.

It’s not prohibited to use Pantone or other spot colors for iStock, but remember that you want to make it as easy as possible for a designer to use your file.

In Illustrator, spot colors are indicated in the Swatches panel by a small black dot on the corner of the swatch. Keep an eye out for this, and if you have any spot colors in your file, change them to Process, by double-clicking on the swatch, then choosing Process in the pull-down menu.

Spot colors in Illustrator

TIP: If the color is a Pantone, and the swatch name is greyed out, first change the Color Mode to CMKY, then change it to Process.

Remember above all, that you have no control over who will download and use your vector file. Some people might be pre-press geniuses, others may be using a vector for the first time. Either way, you don’t want them seeing spots.


General: Pantone spot colors are also referred to as “Solid.” Pantone “Process” colors, as the name suggests, are process, not spot colors.

Illustrator: To change multiple swatches from Spot to Process, hold down the shift key to select them all, then double-click, or choose “Swatch Options” from the flyout menu on the Swatches panel.

InDesign: Be sure to Preflight your files before printing. You will be alerted to any potential color problems.

InDesign and Illustrator: Select Overprint Preview under the View menu to see a correct rendering of color and transparency for spot colors.

Image credits:

Color guide to match colors for print by mushakesa

For the record, mushakesa’s file is beautifully-constructed and contains no spot colors.

Cheryl Graham (FreeTransform) began uploading to iStock in December 2005. She creates Adobe® Illustrator® tutorials for the Layers magazine Web site, as well as her own blog, freetransform.net.

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