The Professional Designer’s Guide to using Black (Repost)
The aim of this article is to document every conceivable type of black that is destined for print and web. It is my aim that if you’re a designer, you can find some information here that you didn’t know―and if you are learning about design, I hope you can educate yourself from this post…
There are 3 Parts in the article:
One: The Different Blacks
Two: Using Black
Three: Misuse of Black
Note: Some of the examples I have used in the article are not accurate color-representations, as the images refer to CMYK color-tones for print. Some colors are exaggerated to clearly show what kind of tint certain blacks pertain, and are only present to indicate color variations, not perfect representation.
In this article I will be using the USA spelling of ‘color‘, as opposed to colour.
Part One: The Different Blacks
RGB Black | R/0 G/0 B/0 : This black represents zero RGB light―and therefore ‘black’. For more information on the properties of the RGB additive color model, visit this WikiPedia Article.
When to use: For all on-screen, web and online PDF use. Variations are sometimes used (for example R/5 G/5 B/5), but differing end-user screens makes this practice futile unless a major shift of color is required; and therefore, the color black would be subjective.
PhotoShop® Black | C86 M85 Y79 K100 : This type of black is roughly comprised by the preceding color combination, but can vary slightly between document profiles and PS version number (some versions produce black at around (90%).
When to use: This is the default PhotoShop® Black. The total ink coverage exceeds the TIC limit of 260-320% (depending on paper stock and printing process), although the total ink coverage can be automatically amended with GCR (Grey Component Replacement) and UCR (Under Color Removal) at the printers.
Neutral Rich Black (also known as Rich Black) | C40 M30 Y30 K100 : This type of black is roughly comprised by the preceding color combination, but varies between designers’ personal preference.
When to use: There are plenty of variants in this colour mix. This is a very general, rich black that doesn’t exceed a 200% TAC (Total Ink Coverage) limit.
Registration Black | C100 M100 Y100 K100 : This mix is comprised of the maximum amount of cyan, magenta, yellow and black.
When to use: Generally, this color is only to be used for registration marks on documents to be sent to the printers. The only exception to this is if a file containing registration black is to be digitally printed (at home or professionally) as toner is used, not wet-ink.
Flat Black | C0 M0 Y0 K100 : This black is just made up of 100% of the black channel, with no other ink in the mix. Also known as Standard black.
When to use: Looking very ‘washed-out’, this black is best used just for small text in magazines and books, and in particular, newsprint where TAC limits are are set to very low tolerance’s.
Designer Black | C70 M50 Y30 K100 : This black is just made up to a TAC equating to 250%
When to use: Probably the most commonly type of black used. Many designers have their favourite mix―and for different papers and printers. This is a very general, rich and punchy black that will suit almost any application.
Pantone® Process Black | Spot-Color/’K100′ : This black is available as Pantone® Process Black C (coated), U, (Uncoated) and M (Matt).
When to use: Being one of the ‘four CMYK colors‘, this black is ideally suited to printing text, whereby correct registration is not an issue.
Cool Black (also known as Black Bump) | C50 M0 Y0 K100 : This is the general-mix, but this black can also be comprised [typically] of between 20%-80% cyan.
When to use: Normally, this type of black is used when a very cold-feeling shine/glaze is required. For example, it would be appropriate on posters containing large areas of black, whereby the purpose is to advise elderly people on an impending flu-epidemic. The bluish-tone would add an almost-subliminal dimension to the design.
Golden Black | C0 M0 Y60 K100 : This is the general-mix, but this black can also be comprised [typically] of between 20%-80% yellow.
When to use: Normally, this type of black can be used when a very warm/earthy feeling shine/glaze is required in a design. For example, this could be used on a ‘Global Warming’ advertisement, etc.
Warm Black | C0 M60 Y0 K100 : This is the general-mix, but this black can also be comprised [typically] of between 20%-80% magenta.
When to use: This type of color would be great if used on a brochure for a jewellery company, etc.
Pantone® Black | Spot-Color : This black is available as Pantone® Black C (coated), U, (Uncoated) and M (Matt).
When to use: Ideally, this is used for example, on business cards and letterheads, whereby only a certain amount of spot colors are used instead of the expense of CMYK. Another great use is in Duo-tone images.
Pantone® Hexachrome® Black | Part of the CMYKOG process range (cyan, magenta, yellow, black, orange & green), : This black is available as Pantone® Black C (coated), U, (Uncoated) and M (Matt).
When to use: It would be pretty pointless using this black on its own, as it has been developed to be used within the Hexachrome® color range (a set of six colors that produce vivid, bright prints).
Pantone® Black 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 & 7 (range) | Spot-Colors : These blacks are available as Pantone® Black C (coated), U, (Uncoated) and M (Matt).
When to use: This range of blacks really start to depart from the standard perception of a ‘standard black’. The color-tints in the range are quite prominent, mimicking in many ways cool, rich and ruby black, etc, but in a single spot-color. Use instead of a similar CMKY black to save money or printing costs.
Metal FX® Black | [Specialty] Spot-Color : This black is part of a set of metallic-colors that are special color inks printed onto a pre-printed metallic base.
When to use: If you want a very eye-catching design―and have a larger printing budget (printing costs are often about +40% of typical CMYK), the Metal FX® printing process may be a great option, but complicated file setups are required―and printers offering this option are few and far between.
Trumatch® Black | Based on the CMYK color-space. Available in Coated and Uncoated swatchbooks.
When to use: If you want more accurate matching of spot colors when converting to CMYK, Trumatch® may be more appropriate than Pantone® colors. However, in the case of just utilizing black, there is little valid reason to use beyond a consistent color work-flow. Read this article for more information.
Toyo® Black | Very similar to Pantone® Black (and the whole Toyo® color system).
When to use: This color matching system is mainly popular in Japan, so you may use it if you design in this country―or maybe if you are designing material that is to be printed there.
Dainippon®: Ink & Chemical (DIC) [Black] | Just like Pantone®, the DIC colors are a spot-based matching system.
When to use: This color matching system and inks are used for use on packaging, coatings, plastics and synthetic resins and related products, amongst other specialized uses.
ANPA® Ink [Black] | Colour matching system based on the LAB color space. These inks were originally made from soybean oil.
When to use: This color black is to be used on newsprint. For more information, visit the Newspaper Association of America website.
HKS® Ink [Black] (88 Z) | Spot-Color : Just like Pantone®, the HKS® colors are a spot-based matching system.
When to use: This color model is used in Europe and Germany, with the inks being used for design on certain plastics for industrial printing processes.
Focaltone® Black (1073) | Spot-Color : Like Trumatch®, this is a color model that is based on the CMYK color space.
When to use: The Focaltone® system can be used for computer system color calibration, whereby Focaltone® black, for example, would be made up a CMYK tints. For more information, visit the FocalTone site.
Note: To save this post becoming repetitive on certain information, I have excluded some libraries available, such as Pantone® Pastel & Solid Colors and Visibone.
Part Two: Using Black
Printing Pantone® Black (or any other Spot-Black) Twice | Spot-Color : The printing of any given spot color twice over (also known as ‘hitting it twice’).
When to use: If for example, a special paper is to be used for a business card design, a designer may specify a Pantone® Black to be used on 2 separate printing plates. The end result is a super rich black normally only achieved utilizing CMYK―but at a lower cost.
Image Copyright: Surface Media
UV Spot Varnish / High-Build UV SV | This varnish is applied to certain areas of the design, highlighting and drawing attention to selected areas. Other similar coatings include Matt Varnish, Crystal Protective Coatings, Gloss and Matt Laminates and StopLight Coatings. There is a more comprehensive list of finishes at Gemini Press.
When to use: If you have a certain desired effect you want to achieve, like when used on the black-styled design above, this varnish can look professional and classy. It costs extra, of course, but if it’s used just with black, for example, it may cost less than CMYK depending on the printers used.
Note: There are other finishes available can be applied to black, such as Embossing, Debossing and Foil-blocking, but wring of these methods would stray from the context of this article.
‘Knock-out Black’ | C40 M40 Y40 K100 : A process whereby text or forms are knocked-out of the black channel (and therefor, printing plate), but the cyan, magenta and yellow channels are either solid or filled to a certain extent (for example, gradients applied).
When to use: This technique is great for subtle printing effects, where special spot varnishes are either not available or not in the printing budget. For example, I once used thus technique on a CD Cover, where I knocked-out the band’s logo on the tray-card reverse.
The image above shows how the four CMYK channels look. As can be seen, the letters are subtracted from all but the black channel, so the word appears ‘less-black’ than the surrounding black, and therefore legible.
This technique has endless possibilities. For example, the surrounding black could be made as a Flat Black, with the text in Rich-Black. Shapes, forms and images can also be tailored to this technique, as well as the use of different spot-colors and metallic inks.
Part Three: Misuse of Black
Base Image: Dreamstime
Black Border Misuse: Yeah, maybe she’s looks shocked because of that drab-‘flat’ border―a common mistake made when using photography in vector-based files (Adobe Illustrator and InDesign, etc) is not matching black borders to the black contained in the files. For example (taken from above), the CMYK makeup of number 1 maybe a Neutral Rich Black, but the border (2) may be a Flat Black. This, of course, may be desired in some situations, but for the most part it is a printing mistake.
Advice: T0 make sure this doesn’t happen, use the eyedropper tool in your chosen Adobe application to measure the CMYK values of the outer-photo black and match the border accordingly.
Base Image: Dreamstime
Overprint Misuse: I would always recommend overprinting black, especially where a black-filled-vector shape is on top of a vivid image. I have found that oranges and greens are particularly prone showing through flat blacks, so don’t ever overprint flat black onto an image unless you want to image to show through.
Advice: When overprinting black onto such an image (well, any image), always use a black, such as designer black, whereby all four CMYK colours are used. Exactly how much of the percentage of these colors you use is dependent on what stock your design is to be printed on.
Small Black Logo/Text Misuse: You wouldn’t believe the amount of ‘professionally-designed’ CD Covers I’ve seen over the years that are inclusive of small black logos that are made up of a rich CMYK black. If you take a look at the logo I have created above, you can see which one is clear and clean cut. There no trying to convince you otherwise. Just imagine if my “AK Doesn’t Make Mistakes“ [spoof] logo was a maximum 8mm in height? You can see why this is an issue of legibility. This is also true of small black text, etc.
Advice: Always check that small black logos only appear on the black channel by proofing your work. Set black to overprint, unless it lies on a dark background…but this may make the logo or text illegible anyway, so use common sense.
Thanks for taking time to read this article. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below. If you use a particular mix of black, why?―And what percentages and stock have you used? Can you recommend anything I haven’t mentioned?
Recommended Articles of Interest
The Design Cubicle | 8 Print Finishes to Spice Up Your Designs
Perrogger | Converting CMYK Black Type to 100% Black
Creative Curio | Applying Special Effects to Your Print Work
Retinart | #Print Checklist
The Theme Blog | Understanding Photoshop Color Modes
Spoon Graphics | The Ultimate Guide to Designing with Black
Design Shard | Tips for Working in CMYK for Print – Computer Arts
Photoshop Ninja | Better CMYK black printing
Laughing Lion Design | Colour Models in Photoshop
Graphic Forums | Black is causing a Headache
Treble Click | Pure 100 K CMYK black is not HTML 000000 color
Desk Top Publishing : About | How To Specify Spot Varnish in a Digital File
O’Reilly Digital Media | Hexachrome Color
Prepressure | Design Basics―Richblack
Wow, Andrew! This is a really extensive article. Definitely bookmarked for future reference. You went into a lot of detail about the different kinds of black (more than I knew!) and when to use them–a great touch. Thank you!
LaurenMarie – Creative Curios last blog post..Enhance Your Designs with the Principle of Unity
That’s a comprehensive round-up on black, Andrew, with some great resources. Certainly bookmarked, and I know I’ll use this as a reference in future. Thanks for taking the time.
Excellent article Andrew. Designer black is the new black!
Thanks for linking to my article too, I had completely forgotten I’d written about it.
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@Lauren / @David
Thanks for bookmarking. I’ve been wanting to release this article for a while now, just needed some time to polish it off. I’m glad that it may come in handy at some point.
I see you’ve written quite a lot of articles on your blog, so no surprise you forgot 😉 No worries, thanks for commenting…
All these blakcs can be found at http://www.genopal.com/colornames
check it out
I took at look at your link, although I could only find one color named “black”: ― although there is quite a comprehensive list of #Hex values for it. Thanks for commenting.
This is my first time here, that was a great article. You got yourself another reader 🙂
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Thank-you for your encouragement Kumail. I’m always glad to have attract more readers…
Nice read! I’ll add a link on my own page about rich black (http://www.prepressure.com/design/basics/richblack). Since you are aiming for the ultimate guide to black, how about also including ‘long black’ and ‘short black’? They have more to do with color separations than with black itself but if you want to cover it all, these would be nice additions.
I’ve taken a look at your link―there’s some good info on there. I’ll add it to the end of the post.
I have never heard of ‘long black’ and ’short black’ before. I did a search on Google, but results were coming back as types of coffee 😉
If I do find some info on the subject, I’ll update this post in due coarse. If you would like to offer an explanation for these terms, that would be great. Thanks for your input…
Great read Andrew, twitted and bookmarked it on delicious. I tried to design float it but it was blocked for some reason. At any rate, great info for beginners and professionals alike!
Yeah, I think I have the wrong Design-Float Code attached to the button link, I’ll get it sorted a.s.a.p.
Thanks for your input and bookmarking this article.
Thanks for the link back to Gemini press
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No worries Maurice 🙂 I think it will benefit my readers. Thanks for visiting…
very nice! extensive.
Hi Andrew, very complete and instrucitve post.
Do you know if this possible to have a file in RVB (300dpi), past this in CMYN mode and find a “great black” color (same “designer black”) with selective selection and channel mixer (or other color level)?
‘Short black’ refers to the use of UCR to create images in which only the dark area’s have any significant black in them. I guess this is what some others call a ‘skeleton black’.
‘Long black’ is just the opposite: because of the use of GCR there is quite a bit of black in the entire image, replacing neutral CMY values.
Both names have little to do with the above topic of creating a black for use in text or flat areas but the names are just as descriptive.
Thanks for the information. I think that information regarding UCR, etc, should be kept for another article. I plan to write one on the subject in the near future, and your comment will make a valuable contribution to it.
I’d never heard of the terms ‘Short’ and ‘long’ black previously, but I suppose it’s termanology used within printing realms―I’ll do some research into more “printer-lingo”, cheers.
Thanks for your comment, however, I don’t know what you mean. Could you please elaborate?
wonderful, thank you… very useful
Glad you found use for it…
First time visitor here, i can’t believe i didn’t know this site 🙁
But anyway, excellent article, it’s always good to know this when working with anything for print!
It’s great to learn and find new sites, I agree 🙂 Hope it can help you at some point. Thanks for visiting…
Great resource! I’ll definitely bookmark. Thanks!
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Hi Josiah, thanks for commenting…
WOW, you are certainly the expert on black Andrew! 🙂
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This is the most comprehensive explanation of (black) color usage I have seen. Thanks for also including the misuses — following this should really help designers avoid simple and costly design-build errors.
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@ Gareth & Kristof
Thanks for your kind words. I’m thinking of adding an extra section to this article at some point, so stay tuned…
You certainly know more about black that me or than I thought was possible. I’ll certainly be using that designer black CMYK breakdown. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t know it. Thank you.
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excellent article!!! because i love black!!
Now that you’ve read this article, you can call yourself an expert! 😉
Thanks for commenting…
Black is the new white!
Very Nice! keep up the good work
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This article is just absolutely fab!
As self-educated designer, these are the pages which make the web a better place to be. Thanks very much!
@ Laurens | @ Desiztech
Thanks for your comments.
Thanks for the encouragement, I’m glad my articles can be helpful…
Wow, this is a truly amazing resource. Thanks for the great information. I had heard of the differences between flat black, registration black and spot black – but I had no idea there were so many choices ideal for different situations.
Glad it could help you out Vincent 🙂
you’re BACK IN BLACK, so to speak. Great Article. I’ll be sure to pass this one on.
Cheers Brian, thanks also for the RT via Twitter @parksdesign
GREAT article. Thank you!!
What a great collection of blacks! *Very* handy to see the different temperature blacks. I also enjoy making richer blacks on 2-color (black and spot color) print projects and taking the time with 2-color duotones that yield a very nice black in photos with just a touch of the spot color in the mid range.
Keep up the good work!
I haven’t had much experience with duotones as yet, but I’ll keep that information in-mind, thanks 🙂
A truly excellent run-down! Taught me a few things and I’ve been in print for a little while.
Do you mind if I feature it on my blog at some point?
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Thanks, glad it could help you.
No worries, I don’t mind you publishing an extract from it, as long as it is accredited/linked back here 🙂
Didn’t realise there were so many blacks! I thought rich black and just normal black were all I would need. Very useful resource. Bookmarked…
.-= Identity Design´s last blog ..Impact Marketing and PR Brand Identity =-.
Loved the article – had to refer to different blacks for printing quickly and this article did the job. Cheers!
Wow, so much information was covered! A well done article.
.-= Rhonda´s last blog ..Dec 3, Business Card Paper: Where To Find It =-.
wow Andrew! This is so excellent. Really a great reference for future.
I think you should write a book about this. Something like – Designers Guide to using Colors
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HERE IS A QUICK VIDEO ON HOW TO SET UP A RICH BLACK IN ILLUSTRATOR
Great info. Our Little Black Book supports much of the detail here.
Keep up the good work!!
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Great article – have tweeted about it as I think it’s a really comprehensive and informative article on the colour black and should help a lot of designers out there. Thanks for sharing 🙂
Wow, and I thought I knew about the black (see my website name). This was a great and informative post, I learned a few things.
One thing I have to add though if you often do get conflicting advice from different printers, and they’re both usually right on their own equipment. Have faith in them.
Thanks, I’m going to read more of these now.
Hey Andrew….what a great post! Love the info and is a great resource compilation. Keep up the great work.
Wow. I never thought there are lots of blacks to choose from. Maybe I’m focusing too much on web design. (rgb black all the way! lol)
Anyway, thanks for the really comprehensive article Andrew! I’m bookmarking this for future reference.
Its incredible the amount of time that must have been put into making this resource. Its much appreciated!
I work for a large player in the print industry. Most of my work is in spot some CMYK. Most if not all color process is supplied files. From my end it seems most graphic houses have no idea what is required to go to press.
One reason I was reading your artcle. We recieve many files in RGB and they are not acceptable as supplied an rgb black must be converted to a spot black is there a direct method to do this ie the The text normally comes out some place around 87% black screen and then changed further to 100% black and screens you take a guess at what they want. If ther is a second color ie 347 green then you do the same to any RGB that appears as green.
We get colour process orders in RGB and reject them as we do not know what the customer is looking for – the difference when converted to CMYK could result in an error.
I have been using rich black for some time now. I will try to implement the -design black – mix when I get a chance. I haven’t had any issues yet that I know of but I may need to research the overprinting of black.
This is great Andrew but I still have a question. (please help, I’m going mad and can’t sleep). I have a digital photo (originally RGB) that I’ve converted to greyscale and then to CMYK in Photoshop but the print guy says there’s too much colour in the black areas for printing. Some parts are nearly 100C, 100M, 100Y & 100K!!! How do I desaturate the black areas using Photoshop? I’ve tried using the ‘Image/Adjustments/Desaturate’ function but the eyedropper still says the dark areas have a TAC of over 300%. Is there anything automatic the printer can run to fix this? Eventually I want to end up with a warm black/brown/sepia montage for a CD cover. Many thanks for any help you can give me – please feel free to PM me. Trissy
Thanks everyone for commenting 🙂
@Trissy → To be honest, the printers I use never have a problem with my designs. Some of my work has gone over 300% before, but any good printer should have UCR included in their print process’s I think. Dont quote me on this, but I think UCR (under colour removal) software is supposed to automatically sort this out in the pre-print stages.
Although, sometimes I have just “cheated” by overlaying a white layer in photoshop set to about 5% opacity to knock down the TAC. I don’t know if this is recommended, but it’s worked for me.
As for the black/brown/sepia montage, I’d create a tri-tone image and then convert to CMYK, or just use alpha channels, although, there’s many ways to do this; most of which I don’t know about – PS has way too many options.
Hope this helps…
I’m staying on the web…my brain hurts now. Thanks for the education.
can you send me a picture of what cmyk 0/0/0/100 looks like?that would be a big help to me.thank you and god bless!
@raym → No worries.
@Darlene → I already have done, it’s about the 6th image down, named “Flat Black” 🙂
Thnx for this great article! Bookmarked it for sure:-)
This was very helpful, but I do have one question.
I’m designing my own business cards with a solid black background and small white and grey text.
I’ve read somewhere that using these rich blacks with white text doesn’t print all that well, is this true?
And also do you have any suggestions for a CMYK mix for a neutral light grey? Or can i just reduce the opacity of white text to produce grey?
@Caitlin → Yeah, that’s true. Only have small white text with flat black. If you want to make the black richer, just you one other colour, such as Cyan at 30%. However, it depends on how small the text is + paper stock. To be safe, only use black on 6-8 pt text. There are other ways around it, like have a “stroke of flat black” around your small text on a rich black background, but it has to be done correctly.
For a Neutral light grey, use same percentage tints of CMYK, eg, 30%C, 30%M, 30%Y, 30%K
Hope this helps 🙂
THANK YOU for your article… so very helpful!! Even the simple explanation for registration black… unless it’s explained, as you did, something so simple can be a big question mark!
wow… this article is so great.. Thanks 4 sharing..
Great article on the use of black in printing and website development! Since you covered rgb black values for the web it would be useful to see the implementation of rgb black in video and photography.
@Carolyn, Dapas and John → I’m glad you liked it! Thanks for commenting…
This is a really cool article. I love all the examples.
Andrew, Fantastic post! Thank you very much. I have a question…
I am using the Pantone Black Twice technique you described earlier on in your article. I am printing a pattern in Pantone Black on a Solid Pantone Black Background. My intention is to get a subtle “Rich black” pattern on the Solid Pantone Black base at the back of a business card and other collateral items. Is this technique possible on Uncoated paper such as GfSmith Colorplan? I am thinking of sealing it off with varnish to avoid rub-off… would it ruin the effect?….and…. Does it make a difference whether the printer prints both inks at once (wet on wet) or allows drying time in between blacks?
Brett → Cheers; thanks for stopping by.
Chris → To be honest, I’m not sure. On issues like this, you’d be better off ringing your printer. I had a phone call just the other day that saved a whole lot of hassle, as every printer operates differently 🙂
There’s lot’s that’s right in this article but some key things are very wrong. Rich black, for instance, from a printer’s perspective, depends on many things, like whether conventional or UV ink is used, the nature of the paper or board, whether there’s UV or aqueous coating, the formulation of the black ink, that is, whether it’s a “dense black” and many other factors. One thing that is definitely not correct is what’s typical in the US for Rich Black. This is usually C60M50Y50K100, but the Y may be reduced if the board is particularly yellow (like Invercote.)
Next, the designer has to consider whether a particular technique is printable. TIC is also dependent on the medium on which the art is printed. Newsprint has a very low TIC threshold and rich black needs to be gray-balanced at about 220 total before running it, otherwise, the web will distort by shrinkage or punch-through. KO of CMY under black creates a murderous condition for the pressman to register.
In short, there are some things that may sound like a good idea but prove to be impossible in practice. At my shop, we see “professional” design work from major clients that will simply not print. We always manage to solve the problem, but it often mean more than one hit of a spot color and we did one major line that required one process black and three spot blacks to get to the designer’s original concept. The art director’s problem was that the designer promised that the black in a plastic part (the cap) of the package could be matched on the box. The entire job went from 7 colors to fill every unit on the press – 13.
Most times, the “designer” has no clue as to what we as printers need to do to achieve the goal of the art. You can be sure that the client pays and pays for that expertise where proper design and understanding of the process would have stopped a ridiculous goal at the concept stage, before dozens of people signed on with a big “attaboy!.” Best bet is to check with the printer before committing project suicide. We know what will work and it cost nothing to ask.
all are black..i cant find out difference in all of these.!!
Excellent blog, glad I discovered this resource. For some mysterious reason I can not subscribe to feed using RSS updates on the right side.
Pop-up to subscribe also doesn’t work in Chrome 19
Excellent article with great examples and misuses. This is the most in-depth piece I’ve read yet on using black in design.
Very helpful article. I’ve been using an RGB-based printer until recently when offset was required for a project. I wish I’d come across your article before I burned many hours trying to figure out why my blacks were completely messed up in my test prints..