Most designers have heard of Pantone and its color books. Pantone’s Color of the Year has also raised consumer awareness of the brand, which was originally developed for the fashion industry. However, when it comes to print design, there are some caveats to using PMS colors.
History of Color Printing
In the days when offset and lithographic printing were primarily used, large companies relied on the Pantone Matching System (PMS) to ensure their branding colors matched across every print medium. Pantone colors exist as physical cans of ink added to a print run on their own plate. But adding a PMS color is quite expensive in terms of printing.
Traditional presses use plates for each color—cyan, yellow, magenta, and black (CMYK). Companies typically used one, two, or four colors for their print jobs, with the cost increasing as more plates are used. Pantone colors were not designed to be reproducible when divided into CMYK; therefore, companies wanting to preserve their brand colors would require an additional plate for each. This often led to expensive print costs when four colors plus a PMS were needed.
With the rise of digital printing and online promotion, maintaining color accuracy across all platforms is a challenge. Digital printing relies on CMYK color, while computer monitors and mobile devices utilize RGB. As a result, companies that use a PMS color for their branding may find their colors do not reproduce accurately when converted to CMYK or RGB. This is the primary reason I recommend designers steer clear of PMS colors.
I often encounter young designers choosing PMS colors for their clients. I can only assume this is what they are taught in school, which unfortunately seldom reflects real-world situations.
Designers like PMS colors for several reasons, primarily because there are so many colors from which to choose. Selecting colors solely based on a computer monitor requires the use of a calibrated monitor. Although you can create any color combination by adjusting the C, M, Y, and K percentages, creating colors this way may result in colors that are not printable in real life. The PMS books make it easy to select colors; however, as I’ve pointed out, there’s no guarantee these will reproduce well on digital presses or on online.
Many PMS colors are so far divergent when converted to other color gamuts they are essentially unrecognizable when compared to their PMS counterpart. Pantone makes a color book called Color Bridge showing only the Pantone colors that separate well and have RGB and Hex equivalents, but not every color is a perfect match.
Another item to consider is Pantone color guides are costly. They range in price from $110 for a single guide to more than $800 for guide combos. I prefer another method of selecting color for clients.
In the 1990s, a new color reference system called Trumatch was developed to eliminate the guesswork of choosing colors for printed material by limiting the color palette to color percentages guaranteed to be reproducible in CMYK. The Trumatch system includes more than 2,000 colors, maintaining accuracy when converted to RGB and Hex.
If you are a designer, I highly recommend getting a Trumatch swatch book. All Adobe Creative Cloud apps support this system, making it easy to select colors. Another bonus: Trumatch color guides are only $85 and are available in coated and uncoated.
Regardless of which system you use (Trumatch or Pantone), printed color guides don’t last forever. They fade over time. Be sure to store them in a drawer or other dark environment and replace them every few years. If you have to choose between coated and uncoated options, consider the type of paper you are most likely to print on. Uncoated is less popular these days, but many of my clients prefer it because they can write on it with a pen. I prefer the coated version.
When working with designers, I encourage you to mention Trumatch to them, especially when discussing your logo. It may seem trivial, but it will benefit you (and save you money) in the long run.
PS. I am in no way affiliated with Trumatch. Just a big fan.