By Michelle Barnett
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Pantone – a spot colour, not a shampoo

Pantone is also not a delicious Italian sweetbread. It’s actually a company that (among other things) produces formulas for mixing specific colours of printing ink.  Mistakenly, people tend to say Pantone when they mean ‘spot colour’ -a term I’ll explain in a minute- in the same way that we say the brand name Hoover when we mean a vacuum cleaner.

So to understand what a Pantone colour is, we need to know a bit about the printing process.

How printing works

Printed colours can be made by layering various amounts of just four inks on top of each other.  These inks are Cyan (blue), Magenta (pink), Yellow, and Key (black) – called CMYK as a group.  They are printed one at a time in separate stages, called the Four Colour Process.  Remember in primary school, where you’d paint some blue and then paint yellow on top of it to get green?  This is exactly what happens with CMYK printing.  Any printed colour created this way is called a ‘process colour’

Starting with white paper and adding layers of ink in CMYK printing will eventually create a dark colour close to black.  This is different to digital screens, which start out dark and need to layer Red, Green, and Blue light (RGB) to produce a bright white screen.

Printer ink cartridges in the four colour print process, or CMYK

Mostly the CMYK process is all you need, but sometimes you might want to make extra sure you get a precise colour.  Maybe this colour is being used for fine detail, and using four stages increases the risk that the plates won’t line up correctly.  Or maybe your business has a brand that uses a signature colour – like the red of Coca Cola or the orange of B&Q.

If you’re going to use that colour a lot, or as a solid block over a large area, it’s a waste of ink to use three layers of printing to create it all the time.  Instead we streamline the process by using a special ‘spot colour’.

The Fifth Colour

A spot colour is not made by pressing four layers of ink on top of each other.  Instead the print technician pre-mixes this colour and it gets it’s very own printing plate.  This saves time and ink, and works best when you only have one or two colours that need this treatment.  The same technique can also be used to apply areas of varnish, gloss, metallics or other special features.

When you choose a spot colour, an easy way to tell your print technician what you want is to choose a colour out of a ‘colour book’.  This is literally a big book full of swatches with names and ID numbers.  It’s a bit like picking out house paint colours at the DIY warehouse.

Pantone book showing a range of spot colours swatches and their CMYK codes

You can tell the technician the ID number, and they can look up exactly how to mix that ink.  And of course that information can be accessed by another technician in the future if you happen to switch printers.

One of the most well known producers of these colour books is the company Pantone.  They’ve called their selection the Pantone Matching System® and it’s become so widely used that the company name is now often used to refer to the process itself!

So there’s no such thing as a “Pantone Colour”… but there are spot colours that have been labelled by Pantone.

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