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Pantone Color Matching Basics

It is the sign makerís responsibility to provide color consistency across various media.

By Jennifer LeClaire

Color identity is an important aspect of any brand. It is the sign makerís responsibility to provide color consistency across various media.

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  • The range of colors in the corporate logo in a client's signage, for example, should match the colors in the logo printed on its stationary, web site, and all other places the brand is represented. This, says experts, is critical to the public image of the company.

    With so much riding on color consistency, savvy sign makers invest in color matching tools. Pantone, Inc. provides a seamless color language from concept to production that results in consistency across media.

    Pantone has gained a reputation as a world-renowned authority on color, color systems and technology used for the selection and accurate communication of color across various industries. Since the 1960s, the Pantone name is recognized as the standard language for color communication.

    "Why choose any old shade of blue when you can specify the exact shade of blue?" asked Scott Buckley, Pantone senior product manager. "When you are talking Pantone to your printer they understand what you are talking about."

    What is PMS?
    The Pantone Matching System (PMS) is Pantone's flagship product that targets the graphic design industry, including printing, publishing and packaging. Pantone describes PMS as the "definitive international reference for selecting, specifying, matching and controlling ink colors."

    The colors that make up the PMS system are derived from 14 base colors. Ink manufacturers license the formulation from Pantone and printers mix of the 14 ink colors to make up the entire spectrum PMS.

    Which products are most useful in the sign industry?
    "If you are using solid spot colors then you use the formula guide," said Buckley. "The formula guide provides the ink formulations to achieve each one of the solid colors."

    The Pantone formula guide, a three-guide set consisting of 1,114 solid Pantone colors on coated, un-coated and matte coated stock, shows corresponding printing ink formulas for each color. The base un-coated formula guide costs about $80.

    A three-book set of solid chips provides coated, un-coated and matte-coated perforated tear-out chips that can be used for quality control. A two-book set of coated and un-coated solid costs $250.

    "These are specification chips that designers typically use to make sure the printer matches the right color," said Buckley. "This allows the designer to not only identify the PMS color by number but also shows the printer what the color is supposed to look like."

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    Pantone also offers a Process Color System Chips and Guides to provide a comprehensive palette of more than 3,000 colors achievable in four-color (CMYK) process printing. The Pantone solid to process guide compares a solid Pantone Color to the closest possible match in CMYK four-color process that can be achieved on a computer monitor, output device or printing press.

    Other Pantone color reference guides for the graphic arts include metallics, pastels, tints, duotones, film and foil.

    What factors can affect the accuracy of PMS?
    There are factors that can affect the accuracy of PMS, including lighting, color calibration on digital equipment, and substrates.

    Lighting is always a factor. Experts recommend color matching under daylight, but that is not always possible. Pantone offers desktop color viewing lights that offer multiple lighting environments - such as daylight, fluorescent, UV, and incandescent - and take the guesswork out of color matching. Pricing ranges from $850 to $1400 depending on the setup.

    "The biggest challenge these days is trying to gain consistent color on your screen, your web site, your print out for soft proofing, and also on the ultimate output of the product," said Buckley. "We have products that span across that workflow to try and control color throughout the process."

    The substrate can also make a dramatic impact. Sign makers not only print on coated, un-coated and matte papers, they also print on plastic, vinyl and other materials.

    "If it is not the same type of stock or even if it's not close to the same type of paper stock that our guides are printed on then it's more difficult to achieve the same color, even if you use the same formulation," said Buckley. "In the sign industry there's going to be even wider variations across different types of materials."

    How often should I upgrade my PMS?
    Pantone recommends getting a new version of its formula guide each year. The last color update was issued in 2000 and added 147 new colors.

    "Unfortunately, a lot of people are using guides that are 10 years old," said Buckley. "When we updated the guide two years ago, we also changed the paper that they were printed on to update the paper to match the trends in the industry to a brighter and whiter stock of paper. So, of course, printing the colors on this paper will change the way they appear."

    What other Pantone tools are available to help me match colors?
    The help sign makers, and others who work with wide variations of ink formulas, Pantone recently developed the Color Cue, a hand-held spectro-colorimeter preprogrammed with PMS system data that includes CMYK, RGB, sRGB, HTML, Lab and Hexachrome values. The device allows the user to quickly identify the closest Pantone color for any item they point to. Once a color is identified, the data is made available to the user through a simple scrolling feature. The cost is $350.

    To learn more about PMS or color matching theories, visit the Pantone web site at:

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