Though creatives have focus their endeavors to social and virtual media, paper product remains the dominant presentation medium for marketers and creatives. Despite consistent declarations in the news that “print is dead,” a 2019 report by PG Paper indicates that world paper consumption has actually risen by 2.5% over the last four years.  As a result, it is more important than ever that creatives learn one of the basics of design – additive versus subtractive color.

Color Usage: Some Basics

One of the first things professional creatives usually learn is how color works, and that print color is quite different from that of display color.  Where smart devices, tablets, and other electronic devices use color palettes based on primary colors of light (red, green and blue), printed matter requires a knowledge of the primary colors of printing (cyan, magenta, yellow and black).  Understanding difference in primary colors is a fundamental basis for all design.

Add or Subtract?

When designing print layouts, it is important to understand not just what Additive and Subtractive Color is, what when to actually use it.  Simply put, the terms are exactly what they imply – additive colors are the result of adding pigments to a base color then applied to a substrate, which absorbs the liquid, resulting in the image.  For the purposes of printing, liquid inks are additive in nature because they must be mixed and blended to achieve a color, either through blending actual liquid inks in terms in spot color, or through the four-color offset process.  The same principle applies to digital inkjet printers and dye sublimation, though these printers require different application method due to the absorbency of the applied colorant on the substrate. 

Close-up of a four color process halftone.

As the inks and colorants blend together, either optically or through absorption or physical mixing, the intended colors and images are achieved.  Four color offset process requires special care and diligence in layouts, as well as extensive review to ensure color alignment, also known as registration, is precise. Even a half millimeter deviation in registration can result in a low-quality image, or color shifting.

Subtractive colors are typically seen in printers and output devices which use dry colorants or toners to achieve the intended colors and images.  The colorant is applied to the substrate in layers as it cannot be absorbed, but is instead melted or fused (hence the equipment term “fuser”) to the medium.  Registration is still critical in this process, especially when cutting and folding of the product is required.  One of the challenges of subtractive color for design professionals is how it translates to printed media. 

Four primary toner colors (clockwise) Cyan, black, yellow and magenta.

When to use it

Where additive color tends to translate to printed media with colors truer to the design screen, subtractive color output can vary widely depending on the printer manufacturer as color output depends greatly on the heat settings of the fuser.  In addition, subtractive color is incompatible with thermography (raised printing), and also tends to be much more difficult to accurately match when using custom palettes such as Pantone.  In addition, poorly calibrated fusers can result in toner peeling and jams.  However, subtractive color output systems benefit from not requiring drying time, no bleed-through, lower cost, and a user friendly interface.    

Additive colors, through typically resulting in more accurate screen-to-media output, suffer from issues such as bleed through, drying time and high operating costs.  In addition, this media requires specific sorts of printers, usually offset presses, which must be run by skilled press operators who typically need years of training to be able to efficiently produce high-quality printed materials.  Finally, while most printers have access to environmentally friendly soy and plant-based inks, many design jobs require traditional, environmentally unfriendly media which are both costly to obtain, and must be disposed of using hazardous materials protocols.

In the end, the choice of additive or subtractive color is the province of the client, but it behooves the designer to know the media required in order to have optimal quality control.  Learning the more advanced practices behind these theories is sound practice for any designer or creative professional.