Pantones, Printers and Proofs: What You See is (Not Necessarily) What You Get.

In the game of translating what appears on the screen to what appears on a printed product, consistency is king. Given the sheer number of variables in the process, it can be nightmarish to ensure. As with any niche, there are companies who will take your money to ostensibly make consistency easier.

Pantone, Inc. is undoubtedly the biggest player in this space. Their Pantone Matching System (PMS) is the standard to ensure that the orange in your PDF is the same orange that makes its way to your bag.  From Cadbury to Canada, Whole Foods to Windset Farms – almost anybody who needs to put an identity out there uses a Pantone colour. They’re kind of a big deal.

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The first thing to remember is that most of the time you can’t just take a Pantone colour and print it. Pantone have premixed inks, but your printer will need to laboriously clean down their equipment and order ink from Pantone - this adds cost and lead time. Usually, the colour is approximated by a process known as CMYK (four colour, or 4c) printing. CMYK uses a mix of cyan, magenta, yellow and black inks to create a match to your specified Pantone colour. Some colours - like orange - are more difficult to get right than others.

When you use Pantone colours as a reference, you typically compare a printed sample or proof against a physical colour guide purchased from Pantone, to cut down on variance.

Well, that’s the theory. As it turns out - not every edition of the Pantone colour guide is created equal.


Over the last few years, starting with the release of the Pantone Plus system in 2010, Pantone has been printing lower levels of ink saturation on their colour chips and guidebooks, resulting in a lighter-looking colour. Older books are oversaturated, and can be extremely difficult to match in the field. The result? If you were using an older book, and sending items to a printer using a newer one, or vice versa – the colours you end up with may not be the ones you intended to get.

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There are some things you can do to get exactly what you want –

  • Be aware of which Pantone colours cannot be reproduced—exactly—using CMYK - greens, oranges and purples are the iconic culprits. Pantone have a "Bridge" guide that shows what each Pantone colour looks like when printed in CMYK. This will let you be aware of how your colour might realistically look once printed
  • Proof, proof and then proof again. Better to triple check now, than to get a surprise down the line.
  • Keep your Pantone books up to date. Not only are the colours a moving goalpost, older books fade and discolour over time.
  • Check your colours on repeat orders. Just because it was done correctly last time doesn’t mean someone, somewhere along the process isn’t going to use updated information, and you’ll end up with something that’s incorrect.

Printing is not an intuitive process. If you’re feeling stuck, speak with an agency with a design department and printing experience (like us—just sayin’). They have the battle scars and know-how to ensure that what you see, ends up being what you get.