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Designing with spot color


This lesson focuses on the origins of color in publishing, including the history of color and printing as well as how printers added color to black-and-white books before finally launching into full process color. Students will create a series of designs only using spot color to deliver their message.


  • Students will explain the value in spot color in printing.
  • Students will differentiate between tinted spot color and transparent spot color.
  • Students will create a photo presentation using spot color.
  • Students will research the value of color in the printing industry and what new technology has helped reduce the cost of printing in color.

Common Core State Standards

CCSS.ELA.Literacy.W-9-10.2d Use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary to manage the complexity of a subject.
CCSS.ELA.Literacy.L.9-10.3 Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening.
CCSS.ELA.Literacy.L.9-10.4 Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases based on grade 9-10 reading and content, choosing flexibly from a range of strategies.
CCSS.ELA.Literacy. L.9-10.6 Acquire and use accurately general academic and domain-specific words and phrases, sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when considering a word or phrase important to comprehension or expression.


60 minutes (see options for homework)


Black and white photos (digital or printed with copies for each student)

Computers with desktop publishing software

(Alternative to computers: large white paper, glue, markers)

Handout: Spot color sample (from Centennial High School Odyssey Yearbook)

Handout: Research notes

Lesson step-by-step

1. Building vocabulary — 15 minutes

Introduce key terms and define spot color versus process color.

  • Spot color: using only one color and its varying tints in addition to black.
  • Process color: using a four-color process of CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black) to print numerous combinations of color.
  • Photo package: a series or grouping of photos that have a connection.
  • Tint: adding white to a color (making the original color appear as a lighter version of itself).
  • Transparency: the percentage of a color that is see-through reduced from the original.

2. Application — 45 minutes

Using the handout Spot Color Sample, discuss how one color and its different tints/transparencies change its appearance. Using a set of black-and-white images provided, students will create a photo presentation using only spot color. (If you do not have access to computers with desktop publishing software, students can use printed photos on plain white paper and one colored marker from a set of classroom supplies.)

The photo package must include at least four photos, and three variations of spot color. On a computer, variations of the spot color may appear as a tint or transparency.

Students will submit their design electronically or in printed form based on your specifications.

3. Extension

This can serve as a homework assignment or can continue to a second class period if you have computers with Internet access. Assign students to research the history of publishing, specifically focusing on the advances made in printing color. This website is a good place to start. As students research, they will use the Research Notes handout to record their findings.

After students have finished their research, they will create a visual timeline of the History of Printing. This 30-minute activity can take place in class following the research done at home or could be part of the overall homework. The timeline should include key advancements in color printing and should be a creative representation of the different key points, using color and highlighting key points.