Rich Black: How to Print Better Looking Blacks.

Design, Printing

Ever print something that had a large black graphic that looked terrific on your screen but dull and grey on the print out? Time to learn about Rich Black, or how to get your darks their darkest.

If CMYK confuses you check out my previous article about RGB vs CMYK, it will help as a primer. So that black graphic, you did everything right, it is set up as CMYK for print, you designed it yourself, but it isn’t popping in the print off. Check your color settings on the black area, if the only color in there is K, you can push it more by adding the other colors. The problem with making a graphic that is plain black with the color set up of C:0 M:0 Y:0 K:100 is that you are only depending on the quality of the black ink. Rich Black is a printing trick where the color set up for black is C:30 M:30 Y:30 K:100. Some people will swear by C:50 M:50 Y:50 K:100, but really it’s up to you. The additional colors add a depth to the black and (yes I know it sounds crazy) makes your blacks blacker.

Beyond this you can even start to tweak your color formula to make cool blacks (C:75 M:25 Y:25 K:100) or warm blacks (C:25 M:50 Y:75 K:100).  Once you start to get the hang of how these formulas come out you be sure that your final product shines where others fall flat.

Things to beware of:

Nearly everyone who first learns about Rich Black does the same thing: C:100 M:100 Y:100 K:100. It doesn’t get better that that, right? Wrong, too much ink or toner will wrinkle your page, smear while printing, and take forever to dry. That’s why I prefer C:30 M:30 Y:30 K:100 over the C:50 M:50 Y:50 K:100, quicker dry time and less ink costs on big runs.

Some things should never be Rich Black, like text. Text is a very delicate thing on the page, if a color plate gets even a fraction of a fraction of an inch out of whack (which they will) your text will bleed with a halo of color. It looks sloppy and blurry and hard to read. 99% of the time text should be pure black. Same goes for fine lines and super detailed line illustrations. There are very few exceptions to this rule, the only one that comes to mind is text that is run over a color photo and you have your document set up to trap (not overlapping colors when objects are placed over them.)




What is the difference? RGB stands for Red Green and Blue, CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key (Black). Here is the skinny on both of them.


RGB makes all colors with a mix of those three (red, green, blue). It is an additive color model, which really means if you add all of them together you get white, not black. This is because it is the color mode of items that emit color, not reflect it, i.e. screens. That is why RGB is the preferred color mode for digital design.


CMYK does much the same, but with pigment. You see the colors because the pigment is not emitting light but reflecting it. It is a subtractive color model, which means when you mix all the colors they get darker, not lighter.

Because of those factors, CMYK is the preferred color set up for print. Both offset and digital printers use CMYK. Offset printers use screens, one for each color, that determines where the pigment goes on the paper. The K for Key may sound strange for black, but it serves a dual purpose.

The obvious one is that if it was CMYB some people would think the B might stand for Blue. The other reason has to do with the printing method; press techs would use the black color plate to line up the other colors since the black plate was usually the easiest to see the outlines on, therefore that plate was “Key.”

If you have ever uploaded an image to a website only to be surprised that the reds suddenly were glowing like a Christmas light and the blues were now a bright purple, you probably had the color mode set to CMYK when you saved it. Web browsers aren’t very good at decoding color, and end up interpreting them in wild, unpredictable ways. Same can be said for printing pictures that are set up as RGB.

RGB can display more colors than CMYK, even though there are only three colors, the value associated with each color goes from 0 up to 255. That is a total of over sixteen and a half million colors. That said, CMYK will always print better. There are limitations to what CMYK can produce, and you should prepare clients for those limitations; four colors can only produce so many variations and will fall short when you hit the neon end of the spectrum. I find that a little explanation and education set most clients at ease.