What You Might Need To Know about Color Matching

Color MatchingThe jazz guy had flown in from Paris to attend his CD release party – he was seeing the printed copies of his cover for the first time. He was not happy!

“I asked for lipstick red,” he complained.

“Sadly, there are so many colors of lipstick,” was my reply as I showed him my tube of Revlon. I resolved never to get caught in this trap again – but with the plethora of different printing technologies and the idea that you can “pick something out on the computer,” this resolution has been difficult to keep. Here is an attempt to explain one thing: the difference between Pantone inks and CMYK inks.

The Pantone, or PMS (Pantone Matching System) is the most popular recognized standard in the printing industry for custom-mixed inks. The system works a lot like the paint chips used by hardware stores. When you specify a color (e.g. PMS 313), the printer uses Pantone’s “recipe” and mixes the ink to the specification. All printers and most graphic designers have swatch books showing samples of the ink, and quality is checked by comparing the printed job to the swatch books. Pantone is one of the major ink vendors, but there are also other inks and color matching systems, such as Toyo.

The CMYK process is also known as “four-color printing,” and it refers to the use of four inks (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black, called K because it is the “key” color). The nice thing about CMYK is you can get pretty close to a “full color” experience – 90% of magazines, brochures, etc. that you see are printed in CMYK colors. If you have a loupe or magnifying glass, you can see how the four inks combine to create the illusion of color – with tiny dots. You can see these dots with the naked eye in lower-quality printed pieces, like the Sunday comics page.

Printing anything using more than four Pantone colors is usually prohibitively expensive. You might do this if a specific color value is critically important. Also, it can be less expensive to print in two colors, such as black plus one Pantone color, or two Pantone colors, because there are still many printers out there with two-color printing presses. You won’t see dots in these, unless the Pantone color is “screened back” to achieve a tint.

Pantone has a solid-to-process guide that can be used to help people pick CMYK equivalents for their favorite PMS colors – for example, if a company has a PMS color that it always uses for its logo.

On to quality control. At the printing press, a lot of technology is used to make sure the job matches a client’s expectations. Inks are mixed using high-tech instruments, and quality is controlled by using spectrophotometers to look at the “color bars” that appear on the side of the printing plates.

However, as with anything else, communication can make or break a quality process.

The most important aspect of quality control is to understand how a printer will print a job, and create your artwork to those specifications. This is especially important if more than one vendor or team will be working on a project. If a vendor cannot make it clear to you how to create the artwork and how quality control will be done, be persistent until you are sure you understand what to do – or switch vendors.