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Help! What percentage grey needed on a black background?


I have just had some letterheads litho printed - the top corner of the letterhead is black with grey detail over the top, as well as the company name on top of this in yellow. On screen all looked fine and on my desk top printer all perfect! But when I got them back from the printer the black was not so dark and all my grey had disappeared! (was the same colour as the black). I don't get why if the black comes out lighter with litho printing my grey didn't also come out lighter?

They were extremely unhelpful saying my grey at 90% was too dark but would offer no guidance as to what percentage would work! Even though I had emailed prior to ordering to ask if there would be any problems with the design and they say 'no all looks fine'. Now they say they were only talking about bleed. Helpful printer anyone?

So please help - I have already wasted enough money. Is it just a matter of knocking it down from 90% to 80% black or would it need to be less than that??

Thanks :icon_notworthy:

Stationery Direct

Staff member
If you are printing full colour CMYK try putting a 30% Cyan under the 100% Black for a rich black, with regards to the grey, yes a lighter tint on the black plate is required although how light it turns out will depend on the % you choose, try 60%.
Boss - is any consideration given to colour space at all in your type of printing? If I sent a file that was CMYK 30/30/30/30 in FOGRA39 and another that was CMYK 30/30/30/30 in US WebCoated SWOP - would I get two identical prints or two different prints.

I've never really understood how discussions about colour can take place without any reference to colour - only references to percentages of undefined inks.
You are of course totally right Hudson but the fact is most of us deal with printers who ask for a PDF X1/a:2001 (or letters to that effect :icon_biggrin:) so in the end you become lazy and just think about producing a PDF without much consideration of destination colour settings. I know it's not right but it happens a lot of the time.

While Hudson make a valid point, I would also echo Boss's comments of creating a rich black and also the grey on top, make sure it is actually a tint of black and not a 100% black with opacity shifted down.
I'm more worried about how the artwork is constructed in the first place. Most designers just use Adobe's defaults which are still the outdated US Web Coated SWOP for CMYK working space. Bloody stupid in my opinion, and certainly leading to really dull artwork - but that's a different discussion. But if you set your colours as CMYK values in SWOP, and then throw those values to a printer who works in FOGRA39 (and there are very few who work in SWOP any more) you start life having defined wrong colours!

Colour defined so loosely as a set of percentages is dangerously vague. Wonder how many threads I'd find if I searched "prints came back wrong colour" - and how many of those cases were down to poor colour communication rather than bad printing?

Sorry sort of hijacked a thread here. I'm sure what's being said probably works :)


Well-Known Member
If you are printing in 2 colour for the letterhead then printing a 'rich black' won't be of much help! Depends on what 'greyness' you want... 60% is kind of like Cool Grey 8 or 50% is around Cool Grey 6 - if that's any help (and you have a Pantone chart!) (and I've looked at them in electric light!)
Thank you all very much for taking the time to reply. I am quite wary of posting on forums as inevitably the people that come back with advice are very experienced and tone can be one of annoyance at the individuals complete lack of knowledge - but that's why I'm here. I do not have a clue about printing and I have found the printers I have dealt with unhelpful. Printing was not even mentioned during my graphic design degree, which seems completely bizarre to me. I come up with the ideas and designs but without being able to transfer these from my screen to print it is utterly pointless.

i expect I do have everything set up incorrectly and would really value any help you can offer. Please excuse my ignorance but I don't understand the process used in litho printing, how does putting a colour behind the black affect how the black appears when printed?

Going back to my grey on black design, the grey is intended to be clearly visible on the black background but quite subtle. I have changed it from 90% black to 60% as suggested and now on screen it looks nothing like how I would like it to look when printed. I find this concept confusing, but seeing as the last 4 things I've had printed have not come out with exactly the colours I had intended, maybe I need to have my designs looking completely different on screen to how I would like them and hope they come back correctly. I am being flippant but at the moment it does feel like Russian roulette and crossing my fingers and hoping for the best.

I'm not blaming the printers, they are printing what I am sending them, I just need to have everything set up correctly so we are at least speaking the same language. Then what I see on my screen needs to closely resemble what I'm going to end up with. My screen is not calibrated, is this something you would recommend doing and if so what is the cheapest way of doing it?

Thanks again for your patience!

Private messages on the subject of printing or the weather also gratefully received


Well-Known Member
Printing is a complicated sport! What is on your screen - especially if it is uncalibrated - is not always what will print. The type of paper that you print on, depending on its base colour (even whites are different), absorbancy, dot gain etc will affect in some way.

I would like to hijack this thread a bit and ask if you guys on Graphic design courses would benefit from a course/series of lectures that concentrate solely on printing and how to prepare files for printing - with only practical points about design. eg. not reversing out thin type from a solid etc. And printers and design agencies - would you think this was a good idea?
It would have been brilliant to have been taught about printing and be armed for life in the real world where you don't just print things at home or get it done at uni on the cheap. I can't speak for all courses, maybe some do include this within their courses. I had a great team of tutors, fantastic at concepts and lateral thinking but they were old school and some had no experience of using illustrator and photoshop. They actually used to cut stuff out and stick it on a board in their day!?


Well-Known Member
That's where the word 'paste-board' comes from! Ah! the 'good old days'... much easier on a computer!

I'm thinking of offering a course at my local college/university... hence the question!
Sounds like a really good idea - either as a stand alone course or approach the course leader, we used to have guest lecturers come in and do a number of sessions on a specific subject. It was really interesting and beneficial to speak to people with real applied knowledge and experience.

"on screen it looks nothing like how I would like it to look when printed"

You can't compare a screen with a printed piece, as it will always look different. Calibrating your screen is a good idea and will get you closer to a print out.

If your job is printed litho, the machine prints loads of dots. Putting cyan into your black mix means cyan dots will be printed as well as the black dots enriching the black, giving it more depth. Like layering paint.

Dot gain refers to the dot "growing" on the sheet - depending on absorbancy of the stock, pressure from the machine as the sheets pass through and various other technical bits etc. Like if you put a blob of paint down and press on it, it spreads and absorbs out into the paper.

Sometimes excessive dot gain can cause thin type on a black background to fill in with black around it.
Kate - if you do get a course going and want someone to guest on wide format print, and all format colour management... I'd be interested. Have been wondering about something like that for the Southend colleges and Uni.