The Pantone Match Game

Confused by the myriad choices of color matching tools? Last week we were comparing the printed proofs of a corporate stationery suite design recently completed. During the review of the preliminary printed proof one of the PMS match colors looked different. The print Rep assured us the mix was correct and the color matched perfectly in their industry – standard color correct lighting booth. (Which, in itself is a tangential point so I’ll save that for another post.)

Perplexed, we probed deeper. Out came the match to process bridge swatch book. We viewed the color both on screen and on the printed page. We looked at the fan deck compared to the perf’d sample book. Another designer brought her newer, unopened swatch book from home.

Our findings? They were all different. Some greatly. Some subtly. But the underlying observation was: none matched each other perfectly.

Over the years I’ve witnessed an increased amount of tools for sale to help designers capture the “exact” color — however that‘s defined. Coated and uncoated swatch books. Bridge books. Devices that record color from the monitor. Even an app for photographing color to find its corresponding paint color. Pigment metamerism takes a back seat to consumerism.

Can perfect color really be matched across all platforms in less than cleanroom environments? Or, is the perfect match, conceptually, only in the mind’s eye? Think of the last time you flew on an airplane and looked forward at all the monitors leading to the cockpit. The color looked different on each, right?

So, what’s the answer? Stop wasting inordinate time perfecting color. But do remember these three important points when you’re matching color on the printing press.

1. ADDITIVE AND SUBTRACTIVE COLOR THEORIES WILL NEVER MEET.
Your monitor is additive (RGB combined to illuminate a particular color) and the printed page is subtractive (ink that subtracts the visible light spectrum except the reflected color you see). They are 2 different color models that are parallel tracks destined never to cross paths. So, when you are viewing a color on screen, determine if it’s your perception of the color you want or the actual PMS (or process) color you want.

2. DON’T BE FOOLED BY THE COLOR ON SCREEN.
Today, many designers select color on screen first. But the perception of that additive color can vary widely according to the printed subtractive color. So you need to choose. Do you like the color you perceive on screen or do you want to print a color selected in a swatch book? Your decision will lead you down two different production paths. if you like the on-screen color, find the printed swatch color you perceive that matches it and specify that in your program. If you chose the printed swatch, accept the fact that the color may look different on screen but will print as you wish.

3. NEVER ASSUME A PARTICULAR COLOR SWATCH IS THE FINAL COLOR THAT WILL BE PRINTED.
Look at the swatch in the newest book possible. Old swatch books don’t match new books. Look at its bridged color, its process match, even both the fan deck and the perf‘d sample book. They may all be perceived differently, but you’ll make better judgements on the final outcome based upon a more comprehensive overview.

4. ACCEPT LIMITATIONS.
Design, like many things in life, is paradoxical. Striving for the best possible outcome is always good but understanding — and accepting — limitations will give you serenity. If you factor in all possible variations: temperature, lighting — even the human factor when mixing and printing inks — you‘ll understand how challenging it is to get the perfect color match in every instance; on every platform. Do your best and know your trained eye perceives color more discriminatively than most.

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