How do Pantone and CMYK differ

Pantone is revered by some designers as the gold-standard in colour. Beautifully coffee mugs and hefty swatch books promise perfect accuracy to those who set up their files with spot colours and shun the crowded waters of CMYK or even RGB in the hope of ensuring exactly the same tone every time they print.

And for a lucky few print designers that are ordering on a scale large enough to justify lithographic printing this can be a reality because they are limited only by the number of plates the print will pass and the number of expensive, carefully blended, single colour inks available on their budget.

For the rest of us, reality and expectation must be a little more mixed… because the colours that can be printed are created by mixing the four colours of toner or pigment found in nearly all small and large format digital printers. Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black – these are the cornerstones of colour in the digital print world and that comes with a lot of positives and a few limitations.

How are Pantone colours made

Pantone colours are mixed using a proprietary process. According to Wikipedia there are 14 pigments involved in the process of producing the basic Pantone colour range, and each of these mixes is assigned a numerical index, for example, Pantone 300 is an exact match to the Scottish Saltire. Pantone also offer special finished such as metalic inks.

How are CMYK colours made

The colours available on most digital presses are made from 4 pigments (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black). Each pigment is assigned a value as a percentage of the total saturation possible. An orange shade might be represented as:

C: 0%
M: 50%
Y: 100%
K: 0%

These combinations offer a vast but limited gamut of colours and it is impossible to mix all the shades visible to the human eye from these 4 starting colours. As a result – some colours are impossible to replicate in digital print. This range of colours is known as the printable colour gamut, and if the tone you have selected is outside of that gamut then printing software will estimate the closest possible colour. Around 30% of Pantone shades cannot be replicated exactly in 4 colour process.

Pantone is objective, CMYK is open to interpretation (to a degree!)

Where Pantone is constant there are several variables at work in terms of the outcome of an image created by blending process colours from 4 predetermined points on the spectrum of colour – the biggest of these factors are:

  • Software based colour management
    • Files are interpreted by several layers of software processing before they are printed and each of these tries to influence the output to produce the most appealing image on paper. We use Adobe Acrobat and Fiery Command Workstation and each of these can be set-up to create a different result in terms of colour.
  • Machine based colour management
    • Equipment is ultimately powered by communications between a PC and the printhead – and this is done by dedicated software unique to the machine. These print drivers can produce different outcomes in terms of replicating colour
  • Variation between manufacturers colour science
    • Printer manufacturers such as Xerox, Minolta or HP all use proprietary toner and inks in their equipment. This means that the pure toner colours may vary slightly from supplier to supplier and produce a marginally different colour when applied to paper.
  • Different stages in the machine maintenance cycle
    • Pantone colours are generally applied using traditional printing plates. This means that the wet ink is never exposed to processes that would alter the shade of the pigment but digital printers rely on a more complicated system of heat fusion to melt plastic polymer to the surface of the paper used. The components involved all deteriorate in performance over time and the colour accuracy can drop as a result. A machine with old components might not give the same result as a recently serviced press.

So why use digital print?

What digital printing misses in accuracy it makes up for in terms of speed and affordability of output for small orders. There is no requirement to make custom plates for each job – the press simply interprets a file and uses the 4 toners available to recreate the image on paper. This means a few hundred business cards or a run of 100 posters can be ready far faster than a traditional printing press could produce them.

How to get more consistent colour with digital print

Design with the issue of colour in mind

  • Design within the CMYK colour space
  • Covert images from RGB to CMYK prior to exporting your artwork for print – this will allow you to see how a reduced colour gamut is likely to look before the physical prints are made
  • Avoid Pantone or spot colour swatches if you are not using a process that supports them
  • Request that your printer avoids using additional processing profile and instead use the colour profile of the file when possible

Be aware of other variables that might change colour output

  • White paper is not a universally consistent shade and the colour of the print is influenced by the shade of white you print on. Cream stocks will add a yellow tint to all your colours, Grey paper will darken colours, pastel colours all add tints that alter the look of your print
  • Finishing processes like lamination and foiling will change the appearance of your print – particularly hot laminate where your prints are exposed to additional intense heat

Can I get a proof copy made before I print my order

We reserve the right to offer customers a colour proof in advance of an order. You may need to pay the cost of an individual item for some jobs.

We do not offer a colour-match service. We do our best to offer a consistent output but many of the variables of 4 colour digital printing are outside of our control. You may notice some variation between runs and we don’t promise to match the output of other establishments.