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This may be a bit of a rant but maybe I am missing something.

The more I dive into Pantone color matching the more I am starting to think it's all worthless. I have been a graphic designer for many years and over the years I have noticed there are inconsistencies with exact Pantone colors.

We had a printing company print 100,000 stickers and even between this batch there were slight changes of hue. I assume because the printer was either getting hot or ink was getting low in area so it was being compensated.

We also sent a Pantone color (374U) to two different printing companies and even these came back slightly different.

So my question is: if Pantone is supposed to be printed the same color no matter who prints it what is the point of Pantone since this is obviously not true.

With all the variables to color (pixels in monitor, tone mapping curve, how the paint mixer is physically mixing paint, CMYK conversion) it seems impossible to always have a consistent color because every print company has different printers and processes.

What am I missing?

EDIT: Thank you to everyone for all of the wonderful answers I learned so much (I wish I could mark them all as correct.)

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  • 4
    You’re right that precisely identical colour reproduction is a physical impossibility. Even the same colour in two locations on the same screen or piece of paper will never be entirely identical. Pantone is – in theory, at least – better at reducing those differences to the absolute minimum possible in a given context, but that’s the best ant colour scheme can ever hope for. Feb 1 at 19:57
  • 4
    @icYou520 - printing is an antiquated system though. It's actually an "ancient" technology going all the way back to ancient China. Ancient technology that is still used today!!
    – Billy Kerr
    Feb 1 at 21:34
  • 4
    Well, if you look at Pantone corporate structure, you will notice that Pantone is a subsidiary of XRite wich is a calibration tool company. This is not a mistake. The buisines owners understand that digital color management is the future, hell even the present. But somebody has to make spot inks even in future. Matching books... Meh. Maybe this should be an answer.
    – joojaa
    Feb 2 at 5:55
  • 1
    @JanusBahsJacquet its not but it requires spectral matching.
    – joojaa
    Feb 2 at 5:59
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    Question/rant represents a total misunderstanding of color matching and ink colors. So typical of younger designers educated only in digital processes. Pantone is not for matching pixels; that's nonsense. A Pantone swatch book shows what actual ink looks like on actual paper, and that is used to design for printing with Pantone inks. Computers have nothing to do with spot color inks or spot color printing. That's like picking house paint based on the color in a web ad.
    – user8356
    Feb 2 at 19:40
54

Other answers have described in detail why you can't expect 100% color likeness when printing with Pantone inks (mainly because they are not colors but inks).

My guess is that it leaves you with the question: "If printing with Pantone inks have these additional risks of slight shifts in color, why even bother using them?". As you stated yourself in a comment: "[...] Pantone seems to only complicate and slow down the process.". Obviously if they only made things worse, there wouldn't be a place for them.

Advantages of Pantone over CMYK

The four CMYK inks have proven to be the best compromise we can find when it comes to all-round color reproduction of graphics and images. They are affordable and possible to produce in vast amounts.

Halftone screening of the CMY inks enables us to mix a pretty wide array of hues and the black ink enables us to give the colors darkness and depth and to print (somewhat) black text. When printing digitally, which is the most cost efficient for smaller runs, CMYK (or extended variations like CcYyMmK) is often (if not always) the only choice.

The greatest advantage of CMYK printing is that it has been standardized. Color management enables us to get a pretty precise preview of what our prints will look like.

But a standardized, all-round, lowest common denominator system also comes with some shortcomings and printing with Pantone colors has a few advantages.

Color

The world contains a myriad of physical pigments and there are many colors which are possible to print and paint on paper which are not possible to achieve mixing the CMYK inks. Two notorious examples are orange and blue. Here shown converted to Coated FOGRA39:

Reflection of light

Pantone inks can have other physical properties like neon inks which almost seem to glow and metallic inks which glitters and changes color depending on the viewing angle.

These effects can't be reproduced with CMYK and can't even be shown on a computer monitor, so I can't show any examples here.

Texture

Pantone inks can of course, like CMYK, be printed at tints with halftone screening and mixed with other Pantone colors, but in their pure 100% tint they enable us to get totally clean and solid areas with any color. In CMYK we can only get that in the four inks.

Consider this preview I made of the difference between how a brown Pantone color and the equivalent CMYK color looks on print:

The CMYK version looks like a brown circle, but the Pantone version is a brown circle. Big difference in my opinion.

Mixed inks will always look slightly out of focus. Partly because of registration issues, but also simply because of the fact that they all consists of halftone dots. With a spot color you can print thin lines and tiny text in any color you want at 100% tint. Doing that with mixed inks is not always advisable.

Price

Not being the standard, printing with Pantone inks can often be more expensive than ordinary CMYK print. If the run is big enough and you limit yourself to one or two pantone inks though, it can be more cost efficient in some cases.

Pantone is not a competitor to CMYK

You shouldn't regard Pantone and CMYK as two equals to choose between. Each have their own right. CMYK printing is by far the most common and advisable to use for most common jobs.

I too have many of those "deadline was yesterday"-clients who are more interested in the effect of the print than the print itself. Their jobs should just be done as standard as possible, no doubt about it.

But I also have another class of clients, which might even be a growing segment, who are interested in the print and for whom the print and the printing process can be seen as sort of an experience. Like artists, photographers, small publishers, companies who make luxury goods etc. Using Pantone colors can provide them with that something "special" which will make their product pop in comparison to standard products.

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  • 3
    On small print shops, 1 head sheetfed lithograph machine, 1 ink will be a lot cheaper than CMYK. Also in silk print for example.
    – Rafael
    Feb 2 at 9:35
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    Where other answers explain why Pantone may not be as exact as the Asker hopes it to be, this one explains the huge advantages Pantone offers when compared to CMYK. Therefore it is, in my humble opinion, the correct answer to the Question.
    – Vincent
    Feb 2 at 9:36
  • As a hobbyist designer, this answer alone has convinced me to check out Pantone in a more serious light. I didn't realize, at all, that they were actual pigments you could purchase. For whatever reason, in all of the literature and few classes I've had w.r.t. design, this basic fact was never conveyed. Wow. Feb 5 at 3:14
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    @Qix-MONICAWASMISTREATED, nice to hear! Just be clear: not all 1000+ Pantone colors are "unique pigments". They are all mixed using different ratios of the 18 (I think) base colors. The ones that are in the beginning of a Pantone color book.
    – Wolff
    Feb 5 at 7:44
34

Yeah, you are totally missing something . . . the actual purpose the Pantone system is used for.

There is natural variation in colour when printing on a commercial printing press. (Not talking about digital printers here, but traditional printing presses such as offset lithography). Obviously, there are quality standards, which if not met could lead to rejection of the print job by the client.

Exact colour matching for every single copy is virtually physically impossible, even though many modern presses have more automated systems these days which makes it easier than it ever was in the past. This variation has little to do with the heat of the press (except maybe under exceptional climatic circumstances). Rather, problems can develop such as ink emulsification often due to changes in PH of the dampening solution, contamination from the stock, too much/too little dampening solution, too much/not enough ink being applied to the rollers, contamination of ink with other colours on multicolour presses, etc. The list of potential problems could fill a book.

The whole point of having Pantone books is so that the press operator can check regularly as the print job progresses to ensure as close a match as humanly possible. Of course, press operators are just human beings, not robots. They must adjust the press as it's running to ensure good colour matching. Also some printers are better at it than others. They are only human after all. I once knew a colour blind printer, but that's another story!

I was a press operator for a long time. Pantone matching was my job, every day, for about 25 years, although I also did other tasks such as graphic design/typesetting, plate making, neg spotting, print finishing. I've dabbled in just about every aspect of the industry.

Pantone books are essential to help the press operator achieve good colour matching. Pantone books also contain the formulas* for mixing spot colour inks. Without them, we'd have to resort rather primitive inefficient methods, such as guessing ink mixes, dabbing out the ink, and testing by eye. And colour matching would have to be based on comparisons against a previous print job (yeah, I've done those things too).

*Note: Ink mixes are made by humans, and Patone formula guides, which give the proportions of each ink, using digital scales which measure to a tenth of a gram. It's a pretty accurate system most of the time, assuming the person doing it is skilled enough. It's not rocket science though.

At this stage, I would also like to suggest you go visit a commercial printers. They are often very keen to show off their machinery and processes to potential clients or designers. You'll learn a lot!

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  • I appreciate your answer. However it seems that more and more business are moving toward digital printers, and the vast majority of clients needed to have their stuff printed yesterday. Like the answer below stated Pantone seems to only complicate and slow down the process. Would you still recommend dealing in Pantone with digital printers?
    – icYou520
    Feb 1 at 22:26
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    @icYou520 Digital printing is fine for short run work because it's quicker to set up, but the cost per copy is more expensive, so it's basically too expensive for long runs. Depending on the actual process involved the quality isn't often up to scratch. As to the usefulness of the Pantone system with digital printing, it really depends on what you are trying to do, or whether the process you're using is actually capable of matching the colours. There are too many variables to advise you one way or the other.
    – Billy Kerr
    Feb 1 at 22:42
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    @icYou520 Note that traditional printing such as offset lithography is still king for long runs and high quality printing because it's cheaper per copy. Money talks! Ancient technology still rocks! Digital can't compete with the quality of lithography for spot colour printing.
    – Billy Kerr
    Feb 1 at 22:42
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    I think there's a very important point slightly buried towards the end here: "Without them, we'd have to resort to ... comparisons against a previous print job" Presumably, if a particular print run comes out too far from the specification, you could demand it be re-done, or get a discount - but you couldn't do that without some agreed output sample to compare to. I'm guessing that if you just told them what CMYK inks to mix, and then said it looked wrong, they'd tell you that was your problem; but if you said "that looks like a totally different Pantone shade", they might agree.
    – IMSoP
    Feb 2 at 12:08
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    @IMSoP - certainly, if the print job is crap you could ask for a refund/discount. However you should note that CMYK inks are not used to mix Pantone.solid inks. CMYK is process printing. Solid Pantone inks are a different process altogether. The inks used for ink mixing are based on 18 or so different base colour inks, not the four CMYK inks.
    – Billy Kerr
    Feb 2 at 12:32
15

Let me explore. Some are obvious things. Others need to be further explored.

We had a printing company print 100,000 stickers and even between this batch there were slight changes of hue

First, we need to really explore if you had a change in Hue

Hue is a change in "color", you printed red and it turned into blue. There is no way this can occur if you used one spot ink. I do not mean "Pantone", I do not mean CMYK, I mean one direct ink.

The only way this could happen, is if the press was a bit contaminated with a previous ink, or at some time, they run out of the prepared ink and need to improvise a bit more.

Normally you prepare, for example, one kilo of a special colored ink assuming this will be enough for the entire project, based on the design (amount of area of the color), size of the paper, absorption of the paper, etc. You will always aim to have more ink than you actually need, but not that much extra because ink is expensive.

No "Pantone" involved yet.


When you have one spot ink it can vary on the press in different ways, mainly the amount of ink, the "density" of the ink. Just as some examples:

  1. The design could need a lot of ink in one zone, leaving little time for the rollers to recharge the ink.

enter image description here

  1. Different pressure of the rubber roll

enter image description here

  1. Adjustments on the valves

enter image description here

Nothing to do with Pantone yet. Also, no "hue" change, just changes in density. Let's say changes in "value" or transparency if you will.


Ok, let's talk about Pantone now.

If Pantone is supposed to be printed the same color no matter who prints it

You do not print Pantone. You print a color ink prepared according to some formula (a combination of inks), based on some basic colors, manufactured by different people. Pantone is what gives you this formula and gives some manufacturers of inks the "authorization" to declare some of their base inks, as "Pantone".

A lot of steps here.

Different manufacturers with different products, some probably give the ink the advantage of dry faster or more oily, or alcohol-based, ecological... who knows, therefore there can be a slight change in the base color.

But the most important point is:

Who prepares the final color?

If a run is big, and I mean big, you can send to manufacture a good amount of ink, let's say 5 kilos. The ink will be prepared in a controlled environment and you will receive 5 kilos of uniform ink in a couple of days.

But 100,000 stickers are not that much. Let's say you have a grid of 10x10 stickers on one sheet of paper, that is 100 per sheet. You are only printing a basic 1000 sheet project. You can print it with 1/4 of kilo or less. The printer will not pay 20 times more for ink. It will prepare the necessary ink "by hand", yes, they probably will use a weighing machine, but what if one ink has some solvent evaporated.

They will try to match "by eye" looking at a simulation of the print not putting the ink in the machine, but just smearing some of it on a paper... Got the idea?

If you want really consistency you need to ask for your project a brand new set of Pantone ink jars, and work with the same print company... and live with the idea that you can not have the exact same color on every print.


What Pantone offers is not "perfection", but rather a somehow reliable color guide, with some standardized basic color inks that can be reproduced by different people with a low margin of differences if processed in a somehow standardized fashion.

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  • Very nice and thorough answer! One thing missing though, which still makes me want to write an answer: It seems that the OP believes that the only reason to choose a Pantone color is to ensure color consistency and isn't aware of the advantages of printing with spot colors.
    – Wolff
    Feb 1 at 23:15
  • @Wolff I am more of a visual fx artist but have done graphic design for many years. I think I understand the benefits of spot colors but if I cant get two printing companies to get the same spot color then it doesn't help me much. Admittedly I am somewhat out of my realm so I would love to hear your answer.
    – icYou520
    Feb 1 at 23:54
  • Thank you @Rafael your answer helps me understand the print companies challenges.
    – icYou520
    Feb 1 at 23:55
2

IMHO, it's impossible to get a perfect match with colors in any system. Pantone is best used as a guide, not an exact, end all be all. It's a great starting point to try to match a color, but to expect the same exact color outcome on everything is just never gonna happen. Not only does everyone see color differently, there are just way too many variables to control.

Is your Pantone book stored correctly, is it old? Is the printer's guide stored correctly or is their's old. What was the environment like where the stickers were printed? Does the printed media have a color cast to it, was different print media used during the job,etc. Was the temperature in the printing room controlled, was it too hot, too cold, humid, too dry that day, was it fresh or older ink, was the ink switched out during the job, was the correct printing profile used for the media, was the wrong or a generic profile used, etc? Is the printer calibrated properly, etc. Is a computer matching the color or is a human? There is just so much that can go wrong when printing and trying to do color reproduction.

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    This is not actually true, we could rely on instruments that record the spectral response of the printed paper. It could be done. But there is a catch. You would need to retrain nearly all press operators, your printruns would also be more expensive. But it could be done. Just note that that would mean we would stop doing color specifications and do spectral specifications instead, which would require all designers to retrain also... Oh my.
    – joojaa
    Feb 2 at 6:08
2

I wouldn't say Pantone is a "joke". Like anything there are other factors which can cause color shifts.... Humidity, barometric pressure, temperature, skill of the pressman, expired inks, poor ink storage...

In a perfect world a Pantone would always be a Pantone. But you need to always use a press house in the same region, always use the same skilled pressman, etc.

Chances are the Pantone ink, if purchased new, will always match... and any shift occurs between the ink can and the substrate. Even the same press house can create a shift because it's raining one day and sunny the next and the pressman didn't do a very good job of accommodating for that.

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  • Also Pantone ink is not purchased in all colours. It is a system similar to CMYK only that it has got 18 base colours (just mixed together before it is printed). So even the same printery will have some slight differences every time they mix the colours. Aug 12 at 23:41

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