Advanced Labels Blog

3 Misconceptions About Pantone® Colors & Labels

May 26, 2017 07:10 AM

Common misconceptions about Pantone inks for labels

One of the most important aspects of label packaging and brand integrity is color consistency. The way your colors appear across all your labels, advertising, and marketing materials is critical to consumer recognition of your brand and products.

Color shifts within a label run and across multiple orders can make your packaging seem cheap, diminishing your product's shelf appeal. This relatively poor retail presence can potentially contribute to the belief that the same lack of concern evident in the packaging appearance translates to the packaged products themselves.

Pantone Color Matching System is a proprietary color system developed in the late 1950s to early 1960s that utilizes a special brand of inks that allow for exact color matching. The obvious benefit of utilizing Pantone, or "PMS", colors is tight control of the appearance of color on your printed labels. However, there are three common misconceptions within the design community which need to be considered.


Pantone misconception #1: PMS colors can be simulated with CMYK

According to Pantone, PMS "spot" colors simply "cannot be accurately and consistently reproduced using CMYK printing". With the exception of a limited group of colors available from Pantone, most of the nearly 1,900 spot colors in the PMS library cannot be simulated, they state. The reality is, using CMYK plus orange, purple, or green can reproduce 70% to 80% of the Pantone range. HP Indigo digital can match 97% of the Pantone gamut with the availability of 7 additional inks.  

CMYK vs Pantone spot colors
4 color process printing, commonly known as CMYK, is the method of printing Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black to create the range of colors you see on the majority of printed materials from magazines to labels. CMYK process is by far the most widely used method for printing color. Look through a magnifying glass or "loupe" at just about anything printed and you'll see what you thought was a solid color is something else. For example, red is actually tiny magenta and yellow dots next to each other. Your eyes cannot discern between the dots and you see the color red.

"Why is it CMYK and not CMYB? The origin is simple but perhaps no less aggravating: K actually stands for "Key", as the black plate in printing days gone by was referred to as the key plate."

Pantone colors are precisely pre-mixed and printed as solid colors rather than Offset printing pattern under magnificationcombining CMYK values. Look at a PMS color under a magnifying glass and you'll only see the solid color. This is the reason color matching is infinitely more accurate when using the Pantone system. On the printing press, a specific Pantone color is added to a print station, and no mixing or adjustment needs to be made to fine tune the appearance of the color. If you set out to paint a house blue you would have an easier time buying cans of blue paint than you would buying cans of magenta and cyan and mixing them together to make blue.

"What do you mean you can't use CMYK to simulate my Pantone color? The CMYK build is right there in the color book!"


Pantone solid color vs 4 color process
Pantone color books, the physical printed books of color swatches you hold in your hand, include CMYK equivalents for most colors. These are always approximations, because the printing presses used to print 4 color process CMYK have different capabilities. Again, when viewing a printed label under a loupe you will see dots of color in proximity to each other. The image above shows the solid PMS color on the left and the 4 color process version on the right.

"While the information presented here is fundamentally true, there is a unique exception to the Pantone vs. CMYK discussion. With the latest HP Indigo Digital presses, such as Advanced Labels' own HP presses, the use of 4-color process, supplemented with three additional inks (orange, violet, and green), can match 97% of Pantone colors right on press. For exotic colors, ink matching can be done offline with the availability of reflex blue, rhodamine red, bright yellow, and transparent ink. This revolutionary technology is available now and in use at our Seattle area plant." 

Digital offset vs flexography dot patterns
Different presses also produce different dots quality, different distances from each other, using different inks. Digital printing presses print with inks that do not absorb into the label facestock as much as flexographic printing presses. These seemingly minor differences create variation across different print companies and across different printing presses within a single company.

Pantone sells CMYK swatch books for more than 2,868 process colors. They specifically note that these CMYK colors cannot be matched to PMS spot colors. The CMYK color guide is a good reference for what process colors will look like when printed, so they are a good resource for communication between brand owners and offset printers when indicating the intended colors used in your designs.

Keep in mind that all swatch books are printed on bright white paper, and show what the color will look like on either coated or uncoated paper. Coated paper refers to a gloss coating on the paper which prevents the ink from soaking in or being absorbed, keeping it closer to the full bright color of a given swatch. Uncoated paper, like the kind you run through a home or office printer, is highly absorptive and will lighten, darken, or generally mute color. Even though the color builds for a PMS spot color are identical for coated or uncoated stock, the difference is striking when viewed in a swatch book. Keep that in mind when considering your label facestock and communicate with your label printer about your intentions for your design. And designers, keep in mind that while you can select coated or uncoated swatches in your design software, the resulting display is a complete simulation and you can rarely trust your screen, as we discuss in misconception #3 below.

This information is a good starting point, but you also need to consider that your label facestock may not be an exact match to the base color or the Pantone book (coated or uncoated), and your colors may also be effected by the label protection option you choose, such as a varnish or a laminate. These factors will effect the appearance of printed colors on your final label rolls.


Pantone misconception #2: PMS colors are correctly displayed on my computer screen (and look the same on everyone else's)

Where process printing uses CMYK to create the range of colors you see on printed materials like your labels, every digital display from your computer, to smart phone, to television, uses a process called RGB. RGB is short for Red, Green, and Blue. Just like CMYK offset printing, the combination of these three colors create the entire range of colors your eyes see, this time on a screen. Many modern design programs attempt to simulate CMYK output on screen (below), but again you are still only seeing RGB so this is an approximation at best.

RGB vs CMYK simulated

The same limitations and restrictions present in attempting to simulate a PMS color using CMYK are present and even more inconsistent when viewing the spot color on a display. To make matters worse, there is very little consistency between displays, even identical computer screens can display the colors differently with minor adjustments to brightness and contrast settings. The overhead lights or natural lights in the room where you are viewing the display will also alter the appearance of on-screen color. Since every screen is different, and the environment where the screen is viewed effects the way the colors appear, accurate color matching of any kind on a screen is impossible.

Complicating the conversation even more, industry standard design software like Adobe Creative Suite offer inaccurate CMYK values for PMS colors within their programs. For example, the Advanced Labels NW logo uses Pantone 187 C, which Pantone specifies as CMYK 7, 100, 82, 26. That's 7% cyan, 100% magenta, 82% yellow, and 26% black. Let's see what the latest version of Adobe Illustrator says:


According to Adobe, Pantone 187 C is the equivalent of CMYK 22.24, 100, 88.97, 14.69. On screen the difference is almost indiscernible. Away from your screen on an offset printed piece it would be obvious if the cyan had been tripled and the black had nearly halved. You can't use software values for CMYK percentages, viewed in RGB, and have any hope of hitting your Pantone color in the real world.


Pantone misconception #3: PMS colors can be used with transparency, printed at a percentage or "screened" with 100% accuracy

Transparent or screened spot colors is an issue we come across from time to time with label design artwork. Long ago in the early days of desktop publishing, when transparency effects were introduced to vector design software, professional printers everywhere saw their Raster Image Processors (RIPs) crashing from these effects. It was a significant problem at the time.

The problems began in 2001 when the release of Adobe InDesign 2.0, which included built-in transparency effects as part of the integrated tools available to designers. Effects previously confined to Photoshop, like transparency, drop shadows, feathering, blending, and gradients, could now be created directly by InDesign, the upstart challenger to industry standard QuarkXPress (for a bit of context, Quark didn't add transparency support for five more years). 

Do not screen Pantone spot colors

History lesson aside, the topic is transparency of spot colors, so to make the point: You can use the built-in transparency effects in your design software with PMS spot colors. You can set your art file up with gradients and transparency, and there will not be any technical issues when your labels are printed on either a flexographic or digital printing press. That is not the whole story, however.

"Just because you can, doesn't mean you should. Absent a physical match sample, complications can arise when it comes time to approve color."

Any printed labels with transparent spot colors will have variation from printing press to printing press, and a percentage of a Pantone color is not something that can be accurately and consistently matched to. There is no physical Pantone chip for "25% Pantone 187 C" that a press operator can use for comparison.

Similar to the way software attempts to discern the CMYK build of a Pantone chip discussed in misconception #2, a press operator (or the computer brain of an HP digital press) will look for the closest possible match. The PMS color will be printed at 100%, but as tiny separate dots called a halftone screen. That's far from an exact science when dealing with spot colors. You can still set your art file up in this way, but you should provide a previously printed label sample for the label printer to match to, or schedule a press check to sign off on the color personally. Alternatively, you could select another Pantone color for use in your design that is close to what you perceive the transparent version of your preferred PMS color would be– this is the most precise way to achieve consistent color and the intent of the Pantone Color Matching System.

"Using the example above, 25% of Pantone 187 C, it would be better to simply use 100% of Pantone 196 C."

PMS colors with transparency cannot be color matched
What about the warning message displayed by Adobe Illustrator (above)? Ignore it! That warning is likely related to very outdated home or office printers that cannot handle the processing of complex vector files. Modern printers and commercial print shops have no issue with spot colors and transparency.

One final note: If you are using spot colors in your designs and will not actually be printing PMS spot colors, the way your art appears on screen will likely differ more from the final printed piece than if you set your file up as CMYK from the start. In either case, on-screen representations of color is by no means accurate, as we covered in misconception #2. If you are intending to use Pantone spot colors for color matching but not printing, and are therefore using them in your original design, do not forget to convert them to CMYK before sending your art files– and remember that the software suggested CMYK values are not the correct values, you can only get those from a PMS swatch book or the Pantone website.


In summary, despite the misconceptions, Pantone color swatches can be useful even when you are not printing PMS spot colors

Both spot color or process color swatch books can be a good starting point for communicating your intended colors with a commercial label printer. As we mentioned above, the appearance of color varies (often greatly) from screen to screen. Swatch books allow for a common and consistent presentation of color.

Label design and pantone colors
If you are using a process book, color matching is still somewhat imprecise. If you are using a spot book and not using spot inks in your label order, CMYK color matching is still somewhat imprecise. Furthermore, if your swatch book is old the colors may change and fade. Pantone recommends replacing your swatch books annually. We have even seen new swatch books from the same year that have subtle differences between PMS colors. For the cost of books that typically start above $100, and in consideration of the moderate expense of adding spot colors on press to your label order, some brands may decide to wing it and hope for the best. This is certainly an option, and any printer interested in long term client relationships will always do their best to match colors from label order to label order.

In reality, many label orders are not using Pantone spot colors, but color accuracy and consistency is extremely important to every brand. The best and most affordable way to approach color matching is to use either the CMYK builds for spot colors recommended by Pantone, or use the process color swatch book they sell as your starting point. 

Topics: Digital Labels, Flexo Labels, Graphic Design, How To

Join Out Team
Label Questions?

    Stay Up to Date

    Recent Posts