Fit Great Design Work Within Print Budget Constraints Using Duotones and Gradient Maps

James George

When you are working with print design work, you run into unique problems and considerations that don’t apply when working with web design. You have to take things into consideration such as the type of paper, the cost of paper, the cost of different types of inks, and special finishes such as varnishes. Printing costs are important, especially when your client needs tens of thousands of copies made. Money saving techniques like as 2-color printing can make or break a print project’s budget, and versatile designers must know how to accommodate these constraints and still come up with a great design.

Color limitations are where duotones and gradient maps save the day. A duotone is made when the light and dark areas of an image are created using only two colors. The luminosity, highlights, shadows, and overall tonal ranges are preserved; only the colors are changes. A gradient map is the same concept with a slightly different process and application.

Duotones take a little extra work to create, but you get different results and have different options compared to gradient maps. The sample image below can be found here. Let’s say that our client is sending out 10,000 direct mailers, but they have a low budget, so you decide to go with two total colors in the entire design. The client still wants an image in the design, so now you have to use a duotone in order to limit the output to two colors.

This image is available in RGB mode, but in order for the duotone option to be available, you have to convert the image to grayscale. This discards the color information, which is obviously destructive, so it is best to keep a spare copy of this image in case things go awry, and you need to go back to a fresh start. To convert your image to grayscale, go to “Image” > “Mode” > “Grayscale.”

Next, choose “Mode” > “Duotone.” A dialog box will come up with “monotone” — which is the default setting — giving you a black and white image.

The Duotone Menu is packed full of presets, ranging from blues to oranges, browns, and greens. You have many options under presets, but if you want a custom look, once you decide on the pantone color of your choice, switch the type to duotone, and click the second color box. The Color Picker will pop up, giving you the option to choose from any color value that is normally available via the color picker. You also have the option to choose from the pantone color libraries available.

You can see below that after choosing “Pantone Yellow C,” the image looks similar to a sepia-toned image. The shadows and dark areas are made up of the black default, and the highlights are made up of the pantone yellow. The midtones are created by mixing the two.

The most useful feature within the duotone menu is the tonal curve that you can adjust for each color featured in the duotone. This will allow you to lighten shadow areas or darken highlight areas that have become blown out. Bending the curve upward increases the amount of that color that is featured in the image. Bending it downward decreases the amount of that color that is in the image. In the image below, I decreased the impact of black and increased the impact of yellow.

The problem with duotones is that once you create them and commit to them, you cannot go back and edit them. However, with gradient maps, you have the ability to keep your images editable, giving you the flexibility to make future changes. Go back to the original RGB version of your image.

Click on the adjustment layer icon in the Layers panel. In the adjustments panel, you can control the gradient, as well as the colors that make up the gradient.

Adjusting the grey diamond in the middle determines the mix between the two colors. The difference is that it doesn’t effect the tonal range, as the duotone option does. The color shown below is much more flat and harsh.

You can change the blend mode to overlay, but the results are not exactly the same as the duotone menu is. Adjusting the mix between the two colors in the gradient map adjustment layer yields different results.

Between the image layer and the gradient map adjustment layer, place a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer, lowering the saturation to zero.

Lowering the fill of the gradient map adjustment layer creates a sepia tone to the image, similar to the effect that we created with the duotone options. Lower the opacity of the fill to roughly 45%. Also, if you need more contrast, move the black portion of the slider of the gradient to the right to increase the shadow areas and add contrast to the image.

When choosing between the two techniques, the two color mix tends to be better with the duotone option. The trade off is deciding between flexibility and consistency.


Designers don’t always have a million colors and an unlimited canvas at their disposal. Solving real industry issues for your clients can be a real challenge, but it can also be an opportunity to prove your worth and demonstrate your versatility. Solving these types of problems for your client isn’t only our job, but saving our clients money and coming in under budget are two of our main goals. Two-color printing with duotones can save clients a lot of money on printing expenses. Knowing how to create two-color images that still have impact while saving our clients money is an essential tool in our arsenal of design knowledge.

Have you had to make design compromises in order to fit within a budget? How to you handle these constraints?