Ok, I know this has been discussed before but I'm hopping to get an answer that touches more on the print methodology rather than the quirkiness of Illustrator when it comes to Spot Color representation.

I am preparing a playing card design (in Illustrator) to be printed by the US Playing Card Company. The card back design is supposed to be a single color over white cardstock. I originally worked up the design in CMYK using Pantone's CMYK formula for PMS 280c. There are gradients and outer glow effects applied to some of the vector elements in the image that are intended to just fade from the color itself to the cardstock which is essentially a white background.

At a certain point I decided it would probably be a good idea to do the design in an actual Pantone Spot Ink for color consistency in the event an additional run of the cards was ever printed. So I added a new swatch from the "Color Books-Pantone Solid Coated" and assigned it to all the elements in my design. I then realized that the Illustrator default when choosing from "Pantone Solid Coated" is set to "Process Color" instead of "Spot Color"...not sure why but that is beside the point.

Once I edited the swatch to be a true Spot color, all of the outer glow effects stopped displaying properly. Image #1 is CMYK and shows what I want it to look like when printed. Image #2 shows what happened when I switched everything over to the Spot Color Swatch. Image #3 is marked up to show what I am talking about.

The shadows in white areas of the design nearly disappeared ...whereas shadows in the darker areas turn to a hazy white that is not correct. If Illustrator is capable of showing it correctly in CMYK why can't it show correctly with a spot color? A Spot color would be applied to the card stock using a single plate just like any of the 4 colors plates in the CMYK process so I don't understand why it can't display the raster effects properly.
enter image description here

enter image description here

enter image description here

I realize part of this just has to do with how Illustrator displays Spot Colors over light or dark backgrounds. But my question is actually about what happens on the printer's end. US Playing Card Co. uses a fully digital process "Computer to Plate". How do I make sure the raster effects and gradients will be processed correctly for the single color plate. I want them to just be halftone dots amongst solids all on the same plate.

Is there a work around for this? One idea I had was to just set the file up as CMYK and do the design all in black. This allows for the gradients and outer glows to display properly. That way when they do Computer to Plate it would only spit out one press plate for the black "K" channel with halftones incorporated. Could they not just then run PMS 280c ink on that plate instead of black process ink?

  • 1
    For most kinds of printing, minor inconsistencies in gray scales wouldn't be a concern, but for playing cards they may allow a sharp-eyed player to reap an unfair advantage. If you can manage to ask a human at the printing shop for design guidance, they may offer advice about how best to ensure that your design can print consistently, such as minimum widths for light and dark lines that are saturated, minimum widths for light and dark lines that aren't saturated, minimum acute angles, etc.
    – supercat
    Nov 16, 2020 at 23:34
  • I could write a book of an answer on this. After reading through your comments below, first I have to commend you for switching to Illustrator even though you aren’t used to it. They are correct, this will print noticeably better being done in illustrator. Especially with all those sharp angled stripes! Second, one of the biggest thing I haven’t seen mentioned is that PMS 280 can NOT be reproduced in standard 4-color printing. It looks muddy and dull. So if that is the color you want, 4-color is not an option.
    – Alith7
    Nov 17, 2020 at 10:03
  • Last thing, you can use the outer glow, you just need to set it from “Screen” to “multiply” and that should give you the same look. Also, make sure your document color mode is set to CMYK too, not just what you select in your color palette. I see this default a lot when the document color mode is RGB and it gets converted to CMYK.
    – Alith7
    Nov 17, 2020 at 10:06
  • I see one other thing, do you only have some of the pieces converted to PMS, and some are still CMYK? Because your outer glow is applying differently to different sections that look to be 100%. Look up how to use the following tools in Illustrator: Separation Preview (won't work in RGB so that's a second double check), and the Select menu for Select Same _____ (fill / stroke / both / appearance / and more).
    – Alith7
    Nov 17, 2020 at 13:03
  • Hi SuperCat, what do you mean by "saturated" vs "unsaturated"? Nov 18, 2020 at 15:37

3 Answers 3


In single color printing blurry effects such as glow or drop shadow the color of the effect should be set only white (=paper) or the used print color.

The effect settings contain also blending mode. It should be = normal; other blending modes can behave differently than with CMYK or RGB colors.

If you expect the effect blur around object A be visible on object B bring A above B. Blending mode normal doesn't cause actual blending otherwise.

About the black plate workaround: It can do the job if the print process allows custom versions. But it can as well cause harms because it cannot be automated, it needs perfect human communication. Preferably fix the design or find your settings error.

  • Hi 287001, I do have the blend mode set to "Normal" and my layers are stacked correctly. I think Billy Kerr solved it for me, but it is nice to know that there are other options such as the black plate work around. Nov 16, 2020 at 17:03

If you want to go down your workaround route using the black plate, I think you'll need to speak to your printer to check it's OK with them. There's no reason why it shouldn't work technically. A plate is just a plate - it has no colour until it's inked on the press. Edit: See note in comments

BTW "Computer to Plate" isn't a fully digital printing process, it's only the plate that's imaged digitally. The plates are run on a traditional printing press.

Anyway, if it was me, I would just rework the design for a spot colour. It would save any confusion or having to issue special instructions to the printer.

Instead of using an effect to produce these shadows, overlay the lines with a shape filled with a gradient made from your spot colour, with one stop being fully transparent, and the other 100% opaque.

For example: This is all just PMS 280C. enter image description here

  • Thank you! I don't know why I hadn't thought of this...so simple. You are right about Computer to Plate. I just meant that the process up to the point of producing the plate was all digital. This job will be run on a sheet-fed press. Thanks so much for your help! Nov 16, 2020 at 17:01
  • NOTE: after reading @Maxwell_PCC 's answer, the statement on their site which says "PMS colors should be correctly indicated" is more or less a definitive "NO" for the black plate workaround. A small print shop wouldn't have a problem with this, but clearly the company you are dealing with doesn't have that level of flexibility.
    – Billy Kerr
    Nov 16, 2020 at 21:24

Ok. Wait. Something is not right.

Have you talked to them and see if they print spot inks?

Here is a screenshot of their personalized decks:

enter image description here

The ones from the right are most likely digital prints, which definitely will not use spot inks. (They will probably use RGB files).

A company that big will probably not use spot inks because this slows down the overall process, because instead of having one product after another, you need to wash the press. I doubt they do that, except only for special products, like casinos.

So: Ask them.

Is there a workaround for this? One idea I had was to just set the file up as CMYK

No. If you send a CMYK file, depending on the company working with your file, probably will charge you a full CMYK print, with a gray result. And they will probably use black process ink, which is transparent-ish.

This kind of workarounds works with small print shops, where you have communication all the time and where you have flexibility and constant communication.

So: Ask them.

What can be done is using a grayscale file instead. Grayscale is only one channel, not 4 expecting they drop 3 of them. Then transforming this grayscale file to a monotone with the correct Spot color.

I will probably contact them later, but I am guessing they need a bitmap, a flattened raster image, probably RGB or CMYK.

Ask them.


Here is a screenshot of the catalog https://bicyclecards.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/2017-USPC-Custom-Catalog.compressed.pdf

enter image description here

It seems they have some options for specialized work like LAB color, and 1-bit files. That is an interesting option.

The guide says that they accept spot color files.

PMS colors should be correctly indicated.

So forget about using a CMYK file with only the K channel.

  • 1
    Hi Rafael, Thanks for your help. I've been over their guidelines many times and I understand most of it. This would be run on their Sheet-fed press. They do print spot colors for an additional charge. I am relatively new to Illustrator and only knew how to deal with spot colors in Photoshop with spot channels. I switched to Illustrator since they stress that it will improve the print clarity to use a vector platform. The cost of a monotone 1 plate job vs. a 4 plate job is the same unfortunately. Adding actual PANTONE ink for a one color job just raises the price a few cents per deck. Nov 16, 2020 at 19:48
  • ok, Just take what is useful from this answer. But do not send a CMYK with the k channel as a spot channel.
    – Rafael
    Nov 16, 2020 at 20:06
  • Got it! The K channel was just an idea I had if I wasn't able to solve the shadow problem. Thank you. Nov 18, 2020 at 16:38

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.