Pantone for Beginners

With wide adoption from the design and style industries, knowledge of the existence of the Pantone Matching colour system is much more widespread that it was years ago. But its original function is still a big part of my working life.

Printing (colour printing on a commercial printing press) is done with 4 colours of ink: Cyan (light blue), Magenta (red), Yellow, and Black. CMYK. The black is not strictly necessary but is used to create true blacks and to reduce the amount of ink laid down on paper. Using these 4 inks printing presses can create a huge gamut (range) of colours

Often though, the gamut is not enough and in special cases like branding, designers want a specific colour. Pantone created a colour matching system back in the 50s that is pretty much the industry standard using 13 base pigments (14 if you include black) to create an even larger, standard colour gamut. Thus if you want to recreate the orange used in Penguin Book’s logo, you could get a close approximation using 0% cyan, 60% magenta, 80% yellow, 0% black or an exact match if you specify a “5th” colour which is Pantone 1505 or PMS 1505.


It’s a lot like going to the paint store and getting a specific tint, except with inks. And it comes at a cost, as a lot of presses only have 4 colour units and so either have to run all the paper through the press again to get the 5th colour or you have to move to a bigger, more specialized press that has a 5th tower.

But the best thing about the Pantone system is the swatch books. I got a brand new set a few weeks ago for my work on T8N magazine. There are tons of variations but in my industry, there are two basic sets. The first is the CMYK process book, which allows you to see a given process colour (that’s CMYK) actually printed on paper. It comes with two sets: coated and uncoated. Coated paper is gloss or semi-gloss paper that has a coating of clay on it. This forces the ink to sit on top of the coating and is therefore sharper and brighter. Uncoated is more like the everyday bond we use and the inks soak into the paper and thus is a bit duller and not as bright. The variation between the two can be extreme in certain colour ranges.

PMS Coated and Uncoated comparison

The other set is the Formula Guides. This includes over a 1000 different ‘Pantone’ colours, with one swatchbook for uncoated and one for coated. If you stop and think about it, this means that the had to mix the 1100+ inks and then print them, 7 colours at a time, on each swatch in the book. No wonder the sets retail for hundreds of dollars.

Of course this is a simplified explanation and the variations and exceptions of using inks and paper are skills unto themselves.

Cool huh?