It was only 25 years ago when all labels were printed using artwork, film and plates. A lot of labels are still printed this way. It is called offset label printing and this type of printing is often but not always done on a flexographic machine which uses a flexible printing plate to produce high quality printed labels.
Now, there are many labels still printed the offset way. Generally, labels are printed on an offset label printing machine if the print runs are long, say well over 10,000 labels and more likely over 100,000 labels. Offset label printing is also suited to printed labels that require fine details. This may include food labels where ingredients are often printed in small type.
Offset Label Printing versus Digital Label Printing
The disadvantage for offset label printing is that the setup time is slow and there is a lot of waste. This form of label printing is also quite expensive for two reasons. Firstly, the machine is very expensive so the cost involved in using that machine is higher than digital label printing machines where there are no plates used. Secondly, an experienced operator is required to operate such an offset label printing machine.
The other time when offset label printing is used is when the colours produced must exactly match the colours of the product or the company logo or other images on the actual label. This is where offset label printing does have an advantage over digital label printing. However, as time goes by and digital label printing technology improves every year, that quality advantage and colour matching ability becomes less and less every year. This is because today, the very best digital label printing machines can match very closely the exact colours for most printed labels.
One thing that is not commonly understood outside of the printing industry is almost all colours are made up of combinations of Cyan (C), Magenta (M), Yellow (Y) and Black (K). It is referred to as CMYK printing for short or otherwise known as process colour or digital colour. When you see full colour labels on products at your local supermarket, then these labels have been printed as a combination of Cyan – a greenish-blue colour, Magenta – a reddish-purple colour, Yellow and Black.
Several hundred colours can actually be produced as combinations of the above four colours, i.e. a percentage of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black.
Pantone Matching System, or PMS colour, is a system of carefully crafted and mixed inks to achieve colours that are outside of the CMYK spectrum with a few notable examples.
- The first one is white which in printing terms is really an absence of colour. Most base stock for printed labels is white so white printing would not show up. However, when using PMS inks in offset printing, white is achievable. For instance, white can be printed on a clear label stock.
- Another key example is the use of Pantone metallic inks, particularly gold and silver. Gold is often added to printed labels for a shiny and often spectacular effect. Gold and to a lesser extent silver colours can be seen on Christmas cards, on some business cards and on occasional wine labels. Gold and silver represent wealth and prestige and these colours are used to reflect that image.
- Inks in the Pantone Matching System can also produce fluorescents and other richly saturated or bright colours that are otherwise outside of the normal CMYK colour range. Pantone colours are used for trade marked colours, for example, the red colour of Coca-Cola. The system is also used where absolute pinpoint accuracy is required over multiple print runs and different types of printed products, as the mixing of ink is so precise.
There is a PMS chart which lists the PMS colour and most label printing companies would have these PMS charts in their offices. Graphic designers can define and match particular colours from these PMS charts, or otherwise find the closest CMYK equivalent.