Color and Design Tip: Rich Black or Poor Prints

Color and Design Tip: Rich Black or Poor Prints




In the recent Color and Design Series post “Color Model Basics: Demystifying Color Models” we discussed additive color models, including CMYK. The primary value of color models like CMYK is their ability to describe aspects of a particular shade or tone in detail so that they can be reproduced at will.

However, even with sophisticated color systems there is variance in the way that display & print systems interpret and reproduce colors. This was very frustrating when I first tried designing an outreach flier with a dark image overlapping a dark background. I managed to pull a rookie mistake and botched the whole print job because I didn’t realize solid black CMYK didn’t translate into true, rich black.

Rich Black or Poor Prints

When designing for print you’ll want to set up your CMYK color profile with rich black or you’ll end up with poor prints. A poor tone of black can be a frustration, or a complete fiasco depending on your layout & design. Poor black tones are most obvious when they contrast with other mismatched tones of black of varying shades or tones. This happens a lot when an image with a mostly black background overlays a solid black background. The mismatched tones stand out drastically, destroying the intended effect and ruining the layout.

When designing the layout on your computer the colors may appear rich and the black tones may seem to match fully – but once the project goes to print the difference in tones can be quite remarkable. Now imagine you just received that back from the printer – 10,000 of them – expecting them to look like the ‘screen’ version, but instead they look like the ‘print’ version from the figure above. Oops!

Creating a Rich Black Tone for Print

CMYK is an acronym for the color model that mixes percentages of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Key (black) together to reproduce millions of tones & shades of hues. One might expect that cranking up the color profile to 100% black he might achieve a nice total black tone. Unfortunately many a rookie designer has made the same mistake.

Solid black or 100% K black looks more like the figure below – a sort of washed out, sun bleached black at best. This wreaks havoc on layouts similar to the one depicted above, where the intent was to have the image bleed off into the background. Instead the layout comes out looking like Frankenstein monster – every gory stitch exposed for the world to see.


Rich black can be achieved, but it requires a little more attention to the other inks C,M & Y. An even 30% of each brings the black tone to a rich, full pitch that works nicely in print. There are several CMYK profiles that work for producing a rich black print – below are a few more examples.

Additional Rich Black and Printing Tips & Resources

Source photo used in example image






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