CMYK vs Pantone: The Color Scale Transition

As a Business owner, it is very important for you that your brand stands out. Picking the right color can set you apart from the rest of the competition and really make your product logo or image come to life. Choosing the right color system for printed materials makes all the difference in appearance.

Pantone Colors

Often called PMS match inks or spot colors, Pantone colors use a system similar to that of house paints, where each color corresponds to a number and a swatch sample. While PMS inks are not the best choice for full-color photographs, they are still used as a point of reference for converting to CMYK.

CMYK Colors

This system uses 4 different colors by layering Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black. To reproduce a color image, a file is separated into these four basic colors. During separation, screen tints made up of small dots are applied at different angles to each of the four colors. The screened separations are then transferred to four different printing plates and run on a printing press with one color overprinting the next.

Process colors are represented as percentages of cyan, magenta, yellow and black. Varying the percentages offers thousands of color possibilities. The CMYK model has the following primary applications:

  • Full-color Photographs and illustrations
  • Multi-color graphics that require too many colors to reproduce using Pantone Shades
  • If full-color photographs will be used along with logo images, it is best to use CMYK for the photographs
  • Graphics that include multiple colors are often too difficult to duplicate using PMS colors, so it may be necessary to use CMYK for more complex graphics.

If you are not sure what color system your graphics are in, an easy way to check your PDF in Acrobat pro is:

In the menu, go to Advance > Print production > Output Preview. In the window that opens, make sure PREVIEW is set to SEPARATIONS. You'll see the CMYK color plates in the pane below if it's indeed CMYK. You can do the same thing from InDesign and the Separations window.

Using the right color system means printed materials that pop with brilliant, crisp colors. Knowing the difference between CMYK and PMS match inks makes all the difference in accurately adapting computer and web based documents into stunning hard copies.