I'm creating a letter and want to include a highlighted section, I'm trying to find the best CMYK blend that represents that when printed.

5 Answers 5


To add on to Brendan's answer, the "Neon" quality of "Neon Yellow" can be achieved in CMYK, but that's not all a highlighter is.

A physical highlighter doesn't contain the pure yellow we expect from printers and monitors, but a slightly more watered-down version, so step one would be to use, say, 75%-80% yellow to start with.

Next, to achieve that brightness, I look to studies pointing out that the brightest color humans see is on the yellow side of green [1], which is that same color you see on newer emergency vehicles:

That really bright yellow

Using these two facts (Highlighters aren't the pure yellow we get from printers and monitors + The neon effect comes from being closer to green), we get the following color:

  • CMYK: 2.5%, 0%, 80%, 0%
  • RGB: 249, 255, 51 (#F9FF33)
  • HSL: 62°, 100%, 59.8%
  • Closest PMS: 101 C

An example of the text highlighted with the above colors An example of the text highlighted with generic yellow

Feel free to add more cyan and subtract more yellow as needed!

  • Much of this is knowledge I have in my head, but don't have a citation for. If you have a citation or correction, please bring it up!
    – Ky -
    Apr 3, 2015 at 17:21
  • See also: Logitech's new branding (video)
    – Ky -
    Jul 22, 2015 at 14:24

I would contend that this is difficult to answer definitively.

If you're talking a four-color process, a straight 100% 'Y' would probably be your best bet. However, highlighters tend to have a neon glow about them, which can't be achieved in CMYK. You'd need a special process color for that.

Get your hands on the highlighter you want to emulate, draw on paper, and use either a swatchbook or printed samples from your local printer to experiment. That's going to be better than anyone here giving you an answer.

If you want to include a highlighted section and you want realism though, the best way to go about that is to study what physical highlights look like in terms of the shape of the highlighted block. Computerized facsimiles look fake because they're perfect rectangles. If you give it a bit of a shake, and one edge is a bit rough, and the thickness isn't uniform, that might go a long way in making a highlight look real.


Highlighters tend to use fluorescent pigments/dyes to give you the bright colors (AKA, 'higlighted' colors). As such, there is no CMYK combination to emulate them as CMYK doesn't include any colors that would be considered part of the 'fluorescent' color space.

If you want a true match, then you need to use a spot color. Pantone has a whole line of fluorescent colors.

If you're stuck with CMYK, I'd suggest 100% Y as a start.

  • what do you mean "fluorescent"? They certainly don't actually fluoresce, or emit light at all as far as I can tell.
    – Ky -
    Jul 10, 2015 at 12:08
  • @Supuhstar fluorescent colors: keytagclub.com/custom-keytag-fluorescent-colors Of course, they don't literally fluoresce in the scientific sense. It's merely a name for a group of highly saturated bright colors (eg 'Dayglo colors')
    – DA01
    Jul 10, 2015 at 14:09
  • thus, certainly, there must be a color one can mix to recreate OP's target color!
    – Ky -
    Jul 10, 2015 at 15:24
  • 1
    @Supuhstar not with CMYK, though. You have to use a custom color such as Pantone--which is what I'm referring to in my answer.
    – DA01
    Jul 10, 2015 at 16:07

I use 100%Y at 60% or 70% opacity and set the blend mode to Multiply.

I can't say this is "right" or "correct", merely what I prefer. My goal is to provide the appearance of a basic highlighter. I've never been concerned with absolute color matching. Primarily because colors can and do vary by manufacturer.

It may seem like I pulled those number out of a hat. I did not. Note that I did actually test this with commercially printed pieces over a several month period. I have adjusted the color percentage to determine what looks best to me and according to what pieces had higher returns.

  • I tried a 100%yellow/20% magenta set to multiply (too overpowering)
  • 100% yellow 100% opacity set to Multiply (still too vibrant)
  • 100% yellow 80% opacity set to Multiply (good and needed for pieces with darker stock or backgrounds)
  • 100% yellow 60% opacity set Multiply works best for pieces with white or light colored backgrounds in my opinion.

Multiply is used to allow content underneath to build rather than be covered. Overprinting will also work, provided the piece is not too "yellow" in nature.

For pieces with an overall yellow tone, I tend to shift to a lime green color for the highlighter (40C/50Y) or 100% magenta rather than yellow. My primary concern is to make the highlighting always appear as an afterthought and not actually part of the design itself.

  • that would work on screen, but on paper may not work as well. 60% yellow would come across as pale and may be overly line screened depending on how it's being printed.
    – DA01
    Apr 8, 2015 at 17:52
  • I create hundreds of sales letters. This has always worked very well in print. It's merely supposed to be representational overall and not an exact match. The 60%/Multiply allows the yellow to be seen, but not overpower the other content. I don't want the highlights to become part of the design. They are supposed to be an after-thought by someone. Emphasizing them too much can cause color conflicts and will completely alter the perception of the design itself. At least in my opinion.
    – Scott
    Apr 8, 2015 at 18:05
  • that's very valid. I was thrown by the 'multiple' angle as that's usually something I use in Photoshop and the like for graphics, but not setting text, but then gain, one can certainly set text in photoshop as well.
    – DA01
    Apr 8, 2015 at 20:16
  • Multiply isn't something I commonly do in InDesign either. But it does work wonderfully for those fake highlighter marks.
    – Scott
    Apr 8, 2015 at 20:55

The most usual approach is a 70-85% Y. If you use a blend mode other than (not recommended, a simple screen is best), be sure to place the highlight under the text, so it doesn't get rasterized if the file goes through a PostScript RIP the output is flattened. You should in any case set Black to overprint in Illustrator or InDesign when you're working with background colors or simulated highlighter.

If you're using InDesign, the usual technique is to simulate a highlight by using an Underline set to your highlight color. Make it slightly taller than the text. Underlines and paragraph rules are always below the text in the stacking order, so you never have to be concerned about it printing on top of the text.

  • Interesting. I dislike the "use a paragraph or underline" method because it A) always has those straight, 90° vertical, end caps unlike a highlighter and it looks computer generated. and B) the highlight is always under the text when it should be on top of anything it is highlighting. A rich black should be slightly more yellow where the highlighter is. Overprinting black works for that, but not if it's a rich black (mainly headlines, not body text). And I've never had an issue using Multiply in Indesign for this.
    – Scott
    Apr 8, 2015 at 20:59
  • 99% of the time you're emulating (not simulating) a highlight, and the precision isn't in any way out of place. Faux hand-drawn highlights always feel a little creepy, like someone thinks I'd actually believe they're real, especially when they're done over faux handwriting or faux typewriting. The point about overprinting is purely to prevent rasterizing the text, and applies regardless of rich black or 100% K. Nothing to stop you using a yellower rich black in the character style. Apr 9, 2015 at 0:07
  • But just because you and don't believe it.. . that doesn't mean Joe the Plumber doesn't :) 6 of 1 I suppose. I've never had an issue. And ermm... RIPS rasterize everything, but I know you know that. So no idea what that point was about. In the end.. everyone should just use what works for you :)
    – Scott
    Apr 9, 2015 at 0:10

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