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How to set up blacks for print

Standard black
Also known as a ‘plain’, ‘flat’ or ‘100% black’, this is a single-ink black that has no cyan, magenta or yellow – just 100% black, with the other colours set to 0. This kind of black is normally used for text to keep it sharp and clear. But while it’s suitable for printing body copy, it’s best to avoid using standard black for larger, solid black areas, because it can have a tendency to look rather dull.

Cool rich black
Printers will often recommend that you create a rich black, which is also referred to as a ‘printer’s black’, by adding other colours to it. You can create a cool rich black or blue black by adding in a little cyan. The recommended amount of cyan will vary from printer to printer – some say it should be 20%, some say 40% or more – but with a little cyan, no magenta, no yellow and 100% black, an interesting blueish tone can be achieved.

Warm rich black
You can darken a rich black further by adding a little magenta and yellow to create a warm rich black, also known as a ‘red rich black’. This has the added effect of warming up the black, which can sometimes appear rather cool if it just consists of cyan and nothing else. Preferences vary – for example, you might use 50% cyan, 20% magenta, 20% yellow and 100% black.

Registration black
This uses 100% of all four inks and is generally a no-no. A lot of printers will struggle to print this because all four plates have to be matched up perfectly, and there’s so much ink on the page that it can take longer to dry. If it’s not given enough time to dry the pages may stick together and ink can rub off. There may be times when you need to use this, or something close, which is fine if it’s really necessary but run it past your printer first.

By Andy Brown, designer, The Print Design Handbook