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CMYK vs Pantone: Color Methods in Printing

How to ensure color consistency throughout all your branded pieces

Your company’s colors are very important to your brand. You have carefully selected the right colors to represent who you are as a company.  If you are unsure what colors are right for you, read our previous blog post on the subject “The meaning & power of colors in marketing.” 

You want to ensure that those colors come through rich and vibrant, and looking the same, each time.  Understand that there is no such thing as a 100% guarantee that your colors will come out exactly the same each and every time.  It’s just the way it is in the wonderful world of printing…but that’s a blog for another time.  You can, however, ensure that you get the best color match possible….it all comes down to the color method.

This is twofold: 

First, the color method that you or your designer chose when creating your logo or collateral piece, and second, the color method chosen when it goes to press.

Color method in design:

It is important to think about your preferred color method before putting a pen to paper and beginning design, or to seek the advice of a print or design professional.  The only way to ensure color accuracy from one project to another is to make sure the graphic elements are designed properly in the first place. 

-CMYK – Stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black.  Most design is done in CMYK.  While Pantone colors are good for logos or for a solid background color, imagery (and much graphic artwork) is created with the CMYK method. 
-RGB – Stands for Red, Green, Blue.  This method should only be used for web based design, never for something intended for print.
-PMS or Pantone – if you are particular about a certain color, especially in a logo, use this method from the start to ensure that you will always have your desired color.  If you have to convert CMYK to Pantone later on, you may not find a perfect match.  This is not something you want to happen when it’s too late.  You don’t want to have your logo and some other pieces of collateral already created, then attempt to print a new piece with a new printer, only to find that the color is not coming out the same.  You cannot go back and find a Pantone to match the CMYK formula; at least it is nearly impossible.  So start with a Pantone whenever possible and save yourself a lot of trouble!

Color method on press:

CMYK – Generally more widely used.  If you think you have never heard of CMYK before, think again.  Just look inside your desktop or office printer.  These are the inks that every laser color printer uses. Each color that is represented in your design is a certain mixture of these 4 colors.  But because nothing can be absolutely perfect….the balance of these 4 colors can be off from one print job to another.  Printers call this “drift”.  Our friend Amy from Newburgh Envelope explains this in a very creative and easy to understand way!  She relates the mixing of colors to baking.  Click here to check out her vlog.

“Well there must be a better way!” you say…Why yes, there is!  It’s called the Pantone Matching System, or PMS. 

PMS (spot colors) – Pantone colors, often called “spot” colors, are standardized, so different printers can refer to the system to get the exact color they need.   These “spot colors” are inks that come out of a can as one solid color.  It is possible to attempt to recreate a PMS color using CMYK (as there are some very close matches) but again, using Amy’s baking analogy, every time the CMYK colors get mixed by an individual printer, the ratio is slightly off.  If your piece was designed using PMS colors, it should be printed with this method to ensure color accuracy. 

So where does this leave you?

When printing a short run you have the option of printing digitally which is much more cost-effective, and only CMYK is available digitally.  CMYK usually serves well, and you can still achieve rich, vibrant colors.  Pantone isn’t always necessary, or particularly cost-effective, especially when you only need a short run.

You will want to use Pantone when the having the exact color really matters to your brand.  If you have a very specific logo color and you are particular about it being just the right shade of red, then you most certainly want to use Pantone colors. It may be a bit more expensive, but well worth the extra cost.

When in doubt, design first using PMS, then you can make the choice of your printing method.  It is possible to get a very close match of a Pantone using CMYK, but if you start with CMYK in your design, it is much harder to find a Pantone match.

(Newburgh Envelope in Newburgh, NY is AdZipadee’s preferred printing vendor.  Thanks to Amy Stillwaggon for her trusted advice and her input on this blog!)


Written by Kara Tonnesen
Project Manager

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