Pantone color, PMS color, spot color—if you’ve worked as a designer for longer than a day you’ve no doubt heard these terms. But what do they mean? As defined by the Pantone website, “The Pantone Color Matching System (PMS) is largely a standardized color reproduction system. By standardizing the colors, different manufacturers in different locations can all refer to the Pantone system to make sure colors match without direct contact with one another.” Simply put, PMS inks are not mixed by a printer; they are mixed by ink manufacturers licensed by Pantone. This means PMS 362 will, in theory, look the same whether it’s printed by Printer A, Printer B or Printer C.


Now that we understand what a PMS color is, you’ve probably already concluded that when specifying a PMS color to your printer, you are selecting an ink other than the standard CMYK. In other words, if you’re printing a four-color job and have also specified a PMS color, you’re now printing a five-color job and have increased the print cost of that particular project. So, when does it make sense to spend the extra cash when printing offset? Here are a few circumstances:


You Need Color Consistency

From the description above, you’ve probably gathered that specifying a PMS color is important for color consistency. Color consistency is the textbook reason for specifying a PMS color that most of us learned in design and graphic arts school. A common example is selecting a PMS color to use for a brand; if the logo, identity set, packaging, etc utilize a PMS, the color will, in theory, be consistent from component to component, run to run.


Why do I say in theory? Color can be affected by the substrate you’re printing on. You will definitely see a change in appearance if you’re printing on white paper vs. colored paper, or coated paper vs. uncoated paper. But many designers do not realize that you can also see a difference between two different brands of white uncoated paper. This is one of the reasons Domtar has added such a wide variety of weights to our Cougar paper and Lynx Opaque Ultra lines.


You Want Gray Body Copy

Trying to print body copy using a screen of black isn’t just a newbie mistake; I’ve seen this in files from seasoned Creative Directors. Printing a screen of black in a very small print area, like body copy type, is going to give your type a pixelated appearance. I know, I know, gray is a very on-trend color and you love the look. If you absolutely need the font to be gray, know that you need to specify a PMS color and pay for a five-color job. If a five-color job isn’t in the budget, consider selecting a font with thinner stems and make the font 100% black. Trust me; you’ll be much happier with the results.


You Want to Print a Large Solid Area of a Notoriously Tricky Color

Some colors are tricky to print CMYK. Oranges often print “muddy” instead of bright and vibrant. Some blues can wind up printing purple on-press. The additionally tricky part is, if you’re printing on uncoated paper and your printer sends you a printed proof on a glossy substrate, that proof isn’t going to give you an accurate color representation. In other words, you could be in for an unwelcome surprise on-press. So, if you have a large solid area with a tricky color that’s critical to your design, my suggestion would be to save your sanity and avoid disappointment (and possible additional charges if you have to go back to pre-press) by specifying a PMS color.


When we sent files for the image above, we didn't specify a spot color and were unhappy on-press. The result was a trip back to the pre-press department.

When we sent files for the image above, we didn’t specify a spot color and were unhappy on-press. The result was a trip back to the pre-press department.


You Want to Save Some Cash

I know this point contradicts the intro a bit, but hear me out. If you have a large run that’s a great fit for offset but the budget is tight, you might want to consider limiting the color palette to two PMS colors instead of printing CMYK. Limiting the color palette can often make a design look more elegant, sophisticated and modern. Also, you could play around with incorporating lovely duotones for your imagery like they did in this stunning wedding invitation from our Blueline Gallery.


This beautiful duotone image contains a metallic spot color, giving it a luminous and elegant effect.

This beautiful duotone image contains a metallic spot color, giving it a luminous and elegant effect.


Those are the four factors I consider when deciding if I should specify a PMS color. Is there anything you would add to the list?