Pantone: The Language of Color Reproduction

by | May 14, 2010

Have you ever tried to describe a color to someone who else without anything to look at together?

“Well, it’s blue.”

“You mean like the blue in the drapes?”

“No, no, nothing like that at all. It’s more like the blue in the little rug by the front door, a cold blue.”

This could go on and on, and you would never really know if you were talking about the same blue or not.

Now imagine you’re a printer, with a client who wants 100,000 brochures in, well, blue. You can see the problem. Once color printing really started to take off with the advent of offset printing in the second half of the twentieth century, there was a real need for a “language” of color, a way to communicate along the whole line of people concerned with accurate reproduction.

But let’s back up for a moment and look at color printing.

Two Kinds of Color Offset Printing

Generally speaking there are two ways of printing color on offset presses, the kind of printing that accounts for 90% of printed products today.

  1. Spot color in which inks are mixed to a particular color and printed
  2. Process color in which four colors—cyan, magenta, yellow and black—are used to achieve “full-color” reproduction

In both cases, getting exactly the color you want is mostly a problem of communicating the color to the pressman who stands ready with his cans of inks. The fact is we can communicate pretty easily about color today because of the advent of a rational system to talk about color developed in the 1960s by Lawrence Herbert.

Herbert had the idea of actually printing real samples of color inks. This would create a standardized system of colors that would allow objective communication among all the people responsible for color. By referring to the Pantone® numbers assigned to each color, the art director can discuss colors with his client, then communicate with the printing buyer, who can pass along the information to his supplier, who will instruct the pressmen which colors to use with the same numbering system throughout. pantone color matching system

When the art director shows his client one of the little, tear-off swatches that became ubiquitous in the printing industry, they both knew that the Pantone Matching System (PMS color) they were looking at was identical to the ones everyone else was looking at. Although it seems simple now, this solved a serious problem for the printing industry.

Standardized Colors in Both Models

Using the pantone color formula books, swatches and other products from the New Jersey company we can now match thousands of Pantone colors with mixed inks, or by way of color percentages in CMYK reproduction. PMS colors have become standards around the world. Corporations specify the colors of their logos and identity in PMS colors. Other manufacturers have adopted the Pantone system, and there are even 3,000 paint colors with PMS color identifiers.

Designers, who spend considerable time selecting, blending and combining colors, develop favorite PMS colors over the years.

Scotland, Canada, South Korea and several states in the U.S. use Pantone colors when they specify the colors of their flags. It’s as close to a worldwide standard for color reproduction that we have. pantone color matching system adobe indesign

Pantone in Adobe InDesign (click to enlarge)

Pantone is also attempting to bring their color expertise into the digital realm with their Goe system that uses the Red Green Blue color system that’s used for screens and digital displays.

The swatch books and formula guides that are sold by Pantone are quite expensive. But considering that the sample books are printed in 600 colors with complete accuracy, I guess you can understand that.

Because of the cost of producing the guides and onscreen color formulas, Pantone has been quite protective of their intellectual property. This is the primary reason you won’t find sets of Pantone colors in open source software. Most of this software is available for free, so there’s no buyer to pay the licensing fee required by Pantone.

However, printers frequently produce their own charts of Pantone colors, and these aren’t hard to come by. Here’s one if you’d like to take a look: Pantone colors. They are useful for reference.

When I ran a graphic design studio in New York, Pantone colors were everywhere. No artwork left our studio without the little patches glued to the corners of the art boards, staying with the job all the way through the process. With the formulas well established—requiring 13 base colors plus black and white to produce the hundreds of colors in the range—the pressmen could be confident they would get exactly the right color.

But How Do They Do That?

I’ve always been curious about how the Pantone books were produced, and I recently ran across this video that gives a quick introduction to Pantone and shows the actual press that’s at the heart of the company’s products. I found it fascinating.

If you find yourself trying to communicate with a designer or a printer about a particular color you want for a book cover, your stationary, or anything else, ask if they have a Pantone sample book you can refer to. You’ll be glad you did.


p class=”note”>Takeaway: The easiest and most reliable way to communicate about specific colors in reproduction is with the Pantone Matching System. Use it with confidence.

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Richard Sutton

    Pantone chips still fall out of my desk drawers from time to time, and I still marvel at the sea change the industry has undergone. I even had a set of (supposedly) Pantone matched marker pens for comping (anyone under forty know what that means?). Now, almost everything communicated is presented on a screen, which uses the RGB color model system. Transmitted light is very different from reflected light, and trying to get a corporate identity Pantone color match from a printed piece (CMYK) to a screen presentation(RGB) remains a very hard job! Thanks for reminding me of when everything was easier!

  2. Maggie Dana

    I got my start in the world of typesetting and printing in the 1980s, when I learned (amid other great stuff) about Pantone its color matching system. But when my then college-age daughter (a psych major) complained of PMS, I was baffled. As far as I knew, she knew as much about color printing technology as I knew about primate behavior.

    It took several hilarious conversations to figure out that her PMS was pre-menstrual syndrome, whereas mine was Pantone Matching System. Years later, we still laugh about this, and I’m glad to say both of us are somewhat better informed about one another’s acronyms.

    • Joel Friedlander

      It’s funny that the same thing just happened to me about half an hour ago, when meeting a client and his wife. It’s been so long, Maggie, I just assume people know what I’m talking about and it’s not until I see the puzzled looks that another possibility even occurs to me!

      • Maggie Dana

        So, was it the client or his wife who reacted to your mention of PMS? Both?

        • Joel Friedlander

          LoL, it was both. The wife looked at me like I was mad, and the husband kind of puffed up, ready to “take umbrage” at my crass speech. Lots of back-peddling and a good bit of hemming-and-hawing ensued.

  3. Joel Friedlander

    Michael, you are a source of incredible amounts of trivia! Thanks for that.

  4. Michael N. Marcus

    Thanks for clarifying that PMS stands for Pantone Matching System. When I was in advertising, the art directrors and production people always referred to a color’s “PMS number.” Later I heard of Pantone, but never realized the connection — I thought that PMS and Pantone were competing systems.

    TRIVIA: Sometimes one person is associated with two competing companies that bear his name in two forms. In audio, James B. Lansing was involved with both Altec-Lansing and JBL. Henry Kloss was a founding partner in KLH, and later formed Kloss Video without his former partners. In spark plugs, Albert Champion formed both Champion Ignition and AC Spark Plugs. Ransom E. Olds is responsible for both the Oldsmobile and REO brands.



  1. Full Printing Color All the Way!-business - [...] Pantone: The Language of Color Reproduction — The Book Designer [...]
  2. Canon EOS 50D 15.1MP Digital SLR Camera with EF 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM Standard Zoom Lens - The Original Infomatique - [...] Pantone: The Language of Color Reproduction — The Book Designer [...]
  3. Solution: Cost effective, convenience for printing digital 4″ x 6″ photos- camera shop vs. epson picturemate? | Quality Digital Camera - [...] Pantone: The Language of Color Reproduction — The Book Designer [...]
  4. Tweets that mention Pantone: The Language of Color Reproduction — The Book Designer -- - [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Clément Buée, Joel Friedlander. Joel Friedlander said: Pantone®: The Language of Color:…

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *