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Printing with Pantone Colors and Spot Colors

Ordering commercial print can be a lot like deciding how to decorate your living room. Finding the right balance of color and texture to achieve the look you want can be a daunting task. When it comes to color especially, you may need multiple passes, whether of paint samples or digital design versions, to get the color just right. Knowing what you're trying to achieve and the principles of color production can help you save time and frustration when it comes to your choice of ink on that important print project.
The biggest choice you will need to make when it comes to ink is whether to use spot colors (Pantone Matching System®) or CMYK process printing. Understanding the difference between the two "color systems" and when you should use each is the key to making it an easy choice.

CMYK vs Pantone: Printing Processes Demystified

When preparing an image for printing in CMYK, the electronic file is separated into four primary colors: cyan, magenta, yellow and black. The image is recreated using screen tints made up of small dots that are applied at different angles to the four process colors. The separated color images are then transferred to four different printing plates on the press. The colors are then printed one after the other to recreate the original image. The CMYK colors are manufactured colors and are not mixed by the end user. This method can be referred to as 4 color, full-color or standard process printing.
cmyk colors
CMYK or cyan, magenta, yellow and black inks used in process printing
The PMS system, on the other hand, uses pre-determined, published color formulas to create a large number of ink colors. PMS stands for Pantone Matching System®, and is a standardized color reproduction system. Similar to the paint swatch guides you find at your favorite paint store, the pantone color chart contains thousands of color swatches created from a palette of basic colors. Creating a Pantone spot color is similar to mixing paint such as blue and yellow to get green, but with much more precision. Each color has a 'PMS' number assigned to it. These numbers are used to identify the exact color needed. The specified ink is then prepared using the correct mixture of base colors, either purchased pre-mixed from an ink company or mixed on-site at the printing company. Using PMS inks is called spot color printing.
pantone color chart
A selection of colors from the Pantone color chart

Get it Right: Benefits and Drawbacks of Printing with Pantone

Color is very subjective, which is why the Pantone Matching System® works so well. It takes all the guesswork out of color identification. Every computer monitor is different, every printer is different. By standardizing the colors, manufacturers and customers in different locations can all refer to the Pantone system to make sure colors match. It is used by many printers and graphic artists to deliver reliable, reproducible colors to their customers. The ink manufacturers who create the base color inks are strictly licensed by Pantone for color accuracy.

Why PMS Isn't Always King

Even though Pantone is a great option in certain cases, it doesn't always make sense to incorporate it into your printing project. Using spot colors can be more expensive than process inks due to the extra production costs involved in "washing up" and changing out the ink in the press, particularly when using more than one or two PMS colors depending on the printer's manufacturing equipment and processes. Since CMYK process printing uses the same base colors all the time, it's a more cost-effective solution.

When Spot Colors Should Reign Supreme

There are certain times in commercial printing when your colors have to be exact. That's when you should consider using PMS colors, either on their own or added to standard four-color process printing. Here are a few examples:
  1. Consistent Branding/Logos - Think McDonald's red or UPS brown. Using PMS colors for your logo and stationery will allow you to ensure color accuracy and establish a standard that anyone working with your artwork will be able to match.
  2. Colors outside the range of CMYK - There are some colors that just can't be produced with CMYK, including colors such as navy blue or bright orange.
  3. Color consistency from page to page - If you are printing a booklet or catalog where you need a solid block of color to be consistent from page to page, it might be worth using Pantone. When printing a solid color with process inks, slight variations in the color balance can affect the consistency of the color.
  4. Smooth coverage of large areas - A PMS color works well when the consistency and saturation of large areas of a solid ink color is important.
As you can see, there are a variety of things to consider when decided whether you should use PMS colors or stick with four color process printing. It's important to look at each project individually and weigh all the factors to come to an informed decision.
Need technical or creative advice on using Pantone inks on your next printing project?
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