What is a Pantone Color and Why Does it Matter?

Molly /// 11/22/2019

Why Pantone Colors Matter When Printing Branded Assets

Imagine the color navy blue.

Got it? Okay, cool. Now I’m going to do the same thing.

similar PMS shades for navy blue

It’s a pretty slight difference, but you might be envisioning the left, while my mind’s eye is seeing the color on the right. In general, that's fine. We're different! Isn't that fun? But now let's say you're ordering something custom printed with your logo, which has established colors and brand identity. You say that you want it printed navy blue, but my version isn't matching yours and suddenly it's not fun or cool anymore, because even a small difference is a problem when it comes to brand identification and missing the mark. Happily, with the adoption of the Pantone Matching System, the printing industry has found an easy workaround to ensure perfect color matching across various substrates, vendors, and printing methods.

What is a Pantone Color?

Simply put, a Pantone Color is part of the Pantone Matching System, which standardizes color interpretation, assigning a Pantone number to each color in order to identify a specific shade. If you think of a Pantone number as a name, a Pantone Color is simply a shade that has been assigned a numerical name as an identifier. Each Pantone Color can be referenced directly by its number and can be color-matched accordingly.

How are Pantone Colors different from other colors?

Folks in the creative space are familiar with various systems for identifying colors. There is a handful of them and in general, the difference is in which medium they are intended to be used. There are systems for screens and then there are systems for print. For reference, Pantone Colors are designed for print.

The other common systems are:

RGB - RGB stands for Red, Green, Blue and is a system of colors created with light. This is most commonly used in on-screen applications, like television, computer screens or smartphone displays. It does not translate well to print, so if you're not into being disappointed, we'd recommend keeping your RGB codes strictly for the screen.
Hex Colors - This is another system for colors that are created by light, and similar to RGB, it uses red, green, and blue values to create each color. Hex Colors, which is a shortened form of Hexadecimal Colors, is typically used in web design and does not translate well to physical print.
CMYK- CMYK is one of the most common print color systems. It uses four colors - cyan, magenta, yellow and black - in a mixture to create a wide variety of colors. A CMYK number is directly correlated to the value of each color required in a mix to achieve the final desired color. For instance, if you're looking for a cheerful yellow, you might choose CMYK 9, 7, 81, 0. Each number correlates respectively to the cyan, magenta, yellow, and black color mixture, telling the printer exactly how much of each color ink to use to achieve the correct color. CMYK lays down ink in microscopic dots in the prescribed mixture, creating the overall color.

Let's get into the nitty-gritty. How does the Pantone Color Matching System work in Digital Printing?

If we really simplify things, the Pantone Color Matching System is essentially a communication tool. It takes the guesswork out of communicating colors to vendors, designers, and printers, and helps establish brand consistency across various mediums. But how do commercial printers understand that information and actually put out the correct color? If you're ordering different branded products from various vendors, you're probably interested in how they all speak the same language and achieve the same color matching results without ever talking with one another.

Spoiler: they use the Pantone Formula Guides.

What are the Pantone Formula Guides?

Now that colors have identifying numbers, we can take it one step further and basically get this class a yearbook. The Pantone Matching System publishes Formula Guides which are fan books with swatches of each color as well as its Pantone number identifier. It's a little like a dictionary, but for colors, so you can look up and identify colors according to their number. For instance, if you were told to use Pantone 114, you might not know offhand what color that is, but you can quickly look it up in the Formula Guide and find that it is a sunny shade of yellow. Alternatively, if you use a lot of yellow in your branding, but have never locked down anything specific, you could peruse the book, find the color that speaks to your heart and adopt that Pantone number into your brand guidelines forevermore.

Graphic designers and commercial printers keep a Pantone Formula Guide handy so they can reference specific colors, communicate effectively by calling them out in design proofs, and in printing, confirm immediately that a color match was hit correctly.

The next thing to know is that the Pantone Formula Guides provides two sets of swatches for each color. For each Pantone, there is a "C" swatch, and a "CP" swatch and those swatches are mapped to how the color is printed to the substrate.

The “C”swatch means “coated.” This refers to colors that are pre-mixed or blended before printing, similar to how paint is mixed at a hardware store before you apply the single pre-mixed color to your walls. In this case, a printer would lay down ink that is pre-mixed to match a specific Pantone Color and print it directly to the substrate.

“CP” Swatch
CP stands for “coated process” which is the industry standard in digital printing. This is how things like custom-printed pop-up tents, table covers, banners, etc. are printed and where CMYK printers are the norm. Although it is technically a different color system, CMYK color printers can achieve Pantone Color matching by using a CMYK mix that is laid down in dots onto a material in a prescribed formula. And this is another instance in which the Formula Guides casually steps in to save the day and provide consistency. Each CP Pantone Color includes the CMYK mix necessary to achieve the desired shade. Essentially the Pantone Formula Guide gives printers the CMYK recipe to create the desired color.

PMS purple shades

If your brand uses a coated “C” swatch PMS color, but your vendor prints on a CMYK printer that requires the coated process “CP” swatch, they will convert it, typically with little variation, but it is worth confirming any color matching variance.

Now let's take it real world: How Retailers and Manufacturers Use the Pantone Color System

Let's say your logo uses PMS 286 CP. Google it if you're curious, but for quick reference, it's a rich royal blue, bright and just a few shades lighter than Reflex Blue. And as an important side note: even this synopsis is a perfect example of the typical non-technical ways that we describe a color and it illustrates how mistakes are made because it doesn't necessarily point to a specific shade. Once again, we're probably seeing different colors in our mind. However, if you call out PMS 286 CP to a vendor, their graphic designers are going to scoop up their Pantone Formula Guide, take a peek at the swatch, and call that Pantone out on your design proof.

Published Pantone Formula Guides are important here because the printing industry does a lot of web-based communication. And what that means is when you review a proof of any customized marketing asset on your phone or your laptop, your screen's brightness might be turned up higher (or turned down lower!) than the graphic designer's and so the actual shade you see on your screen might look different. If you're using the Pantone Color Match System, that doesn't matter. The final printed product is going to match the color in the Formula Guide, not the color on your screen.

Once your design proof is approved, the graphic designer passes the Pantone information along to the folks running the commercial printers. They set the printer to the prescribed CMYK mix and then confirm the color matching with the help of the Pantone swatches in the Formula Guide once everything comes off the printer. On occasion, they need to tweak the prescribed CMYK color mix to more closely match the intended Pantone Color because ultimately their goal is to match the color swatch in the Formula Guide. In the meantime, everyone gets to sleep peacefully knowing that they're all on the same page about the color they should be achieving.

What is the importance of Pantone Colors?

So you're still here, this all makes sense, and you're nodding at each deeply profound point, but maybe you're also thinking, "listen TentCraft, this is great, but I'm really not married to the blue that I've been using in our logo. I just need it navy blue and the specific color isn't going to make or break my day."

That's fair, but consider this: brands often become synonymous with their brand colors. If I say Coke red, Barbie pink, or Tiffany blue, you can probably instantly visualize those colors. They're specific and that's strategic. Coke doesn't dabble with a maroon logo. Barbie’s dream house wasn’t a random shade of mauve. And Tiffany doesn't wrap up a $100,000 engagement ring in a pastel blue box. If they did, those colors - some of the most widely recognized colors in the world - wouldn't mean anything at all. Being specific with your colors means that when your audience sees them, they associate them with your brand. For true brand recognition, you have to give your audience some consistency to help them establish your brand's presence in their memory. Simple as that. So it is very worthwhile to get specific with a Pantone Color and use it consistently. Whether you put a ton of strategy into selecting just the right color, or casually land on something that works, having a Pantone Color number will make your life easier, and your brand more memorable, in the long run.

Furthermore, consistency is just aesthetically pleasing. Imagine going to a tradeshow with a tent, table-cover, backdrop, and maybe a flag because you’re fully decked out. Won’t it seem a little weird if each of them is some varying shade of the same color family? They’re all blue, but nothing is the same color? Unless that’s the look you’re going for it, it just looks a little disorganized.

Now maybe you're on the flip side of that - you are very committed to your Pantone Color and to that, we say bravo! You are making life much easier for yourself and every vendor you work with. Frankly, Pantone Colors save time, money, effort and most importantly, confusion and anxiety. Pantones are the gold standard for achieving color matching accuracy and consistency between various vendors, as well as across different substrates. This means your vendor can confidently produce your new marketing asset with the correct Pantone Color matching. It also means you're not going to open a package the day before your event and find out that you and your vendor are worlds apart in what "royal blue" means.

More concisely, using Pantone Colors can ensure your business cards match your custom printed event tent, and both match your personalized table throws. Each vendor can easily refer to their Pantone Formula Guide to confirm the final product is a perfect match to the Pantone Color, completely eliminating the guesswork. See how everyone enjoys a nice drop in cortisol?

Are there any caveats in Pantone Color matching?

Of course, no system is perfect, and there are instances where colors might not appear to be a completely perfect match. Ultimately, printers that offer Pantone matching capabilities are going to use the swatches in the Formula Guides as a reference and if you're consistently giving that information to your vendors, your custom printed goods are going to all look pretty darn similar. The variation happens most often with different substrates. Because various materials reflect or absorb light differently, sometimes the same color can look slightly different. For an example that we can safely assume everyone is familiar with, let's go with Coca-Cola red. If that color is printed on a shiny material, like a pop can, it's going to reflect light and look really nice and bright. If that exact same color is printed on a cardboard box, it's going to have a more matte finish and probably look a bit more subdued. The color is the same, but the finish can affect the eye's perception of it.

Similarly, even Pantone Colors can't alter and fix the way that indoor and outdoor lighting affects the appearance of a color. Fluorescent lights cast a warm yellow glow, while outdoor light is often a bluer white light. If you have a customized table cover, you might see a slight variation in the color when you use it at an indoor trade show, compared to when you use it outdoors at a community event.

FAQs Let's quickly re-cap for the skimmers.

Here's everything you need to know in a synopsis:

What is a Pantone Color?

A Pantone Color is a shade that has been assigned a number as a name. That number operates as an identifier so you can call out a specific color that is standardized across all industries.

What does the Pantone number mean?

There's no secret behind-the-scenes meaning. The number is just an identifier. Pantone adds colors to the Formula Guides every year, so the number of identified colors increases and Pantone simply chooses an unused number to assign as its identifier.

How do Pantone Colors help designers and manufacturers stay consistent with color choices?

In the print industry, Pantone Colors are the gold standard for ensuring clear communication between a vendor and a customer, ensuring a perfect color match. When a customer provides the Pantone Color numbers to their vendor, designers and printers can cross-reference with the Formula Guides to confirm the correct colors are achieved.

Why Should Brands use PMS colors to color match your branded assets?

It ensures color cohesion across various vendors and substrates. It means that if you order business cards from one vendor and a vehicle wrap from another, both will be able to accurately print your desired color.

Have we convinced you to make the switch to the Pantone Color System?

Don’t worry! We’re not asking you to totally drop your current color system. You don’t have to be exclusive, so if you already have nailed down your RGB color, or usually work in Hex, keep those handy. They’re perfect for all the web-based work you do. But when you need something custom printed with your logo, you can have a graphic designer help you find the Pantone Color conversion (or the closest match) to fill out your brand guidelines.

About TentCraft

We’re more than just custom pop up tents — TentCraft is a premium fabricator of all things experiential marketing and outdoor advertising. If it combines metal, fabric and print our team of skilled craftsmen can transform any napkin sketch or wild idea into a fully realized project. Serving the biggest brands on the planet as well as your local High School, if you want the perfect blend of quality and American craftsmanship, we’ve got you covered.