When should I use them, and how do I pick one?

(NB: I know the answer, but think this question fills an important gap.)


3 Answers 3


In printing, a spot colour is an ink that is premixed to the colour required and printed from a dedicated plate, rather than being simulated by overprinting dots of ink from the cyan, magenta, yellow and black plates (4 colour CMYK process).

It may be a colour which cannot be achieved in CMYK, such as metallic or neon. It may be a colour that is achievable in CMYK, but given it is printed as a solid colour rather than overlaid half-tone dots, it will give a better appearance, especially close up and/or on lower-quality stock, where halftone dots need to be printed more coarsely.

You tend to use them in one of two scenarios:

  • in one/two/three colour printing, e.g. you might print in orange and black alone, or red, black and silver. Can be significantly cheaper than four colour printing.

  • in five or more colour printing, in addition to cyan, maganta, yellow and black. e.g. as well as having a full colour image on the page, you may want to have gold elements, or print the client's logo in their signature red for best appearance.

In most of the world (at least UK, Europe, US), the usual way of consistently specifying a spot colour is to use the PANTONE Matching System (PMS). All Adobe software includes PMS palettes. As far as I am aware, free/open source software doesn't, because it's proprietary.

So corporate style guide palettes will often have PMS references for print, along with CMYK values where spot printing isn't feasible, and RGB values for on-screen work.

A PMS reference is usually "PANTONE" (or unofficially "PMS") plus a number, so a red might be specified as "PANTONE 186" or "PMS 186". But they are sometimes a bit different: "PANTONE Process Green", "PANTONE Warm Black 3".

Given you are dealing with ink, and colours that can't necessarily be reproduced even on a calibrated screen, the reliable way of previewing PMS colors is to look at a printed sample book. These are expensive, so unless you need to do this a lot, you'll probably want to borrow one, get your print rep to bring one to a meeting, etc. You can also get tear sheets of single colour samples.

Sample books come in different versions to show the effect of printing on different papers, e.g. if if the sample you're looking at is labelled "PANTONE 186 C" it's on coated paper and if "PANTONE 186 U" it's on uncoated paper. It's important to note that these both represent the same ink.

In software, you may be able to pick "PANTONE 186 CVC" and "PANTONE 186 CVU". These are again the same ink, but refer to on-screen RGB (Computer Video) simulations of the output on coated and uncoated paper respectively.

  • Actually, looking at prices on Pantone's site, I am sure the books are much cheaper than they used to be. FORMULA GUIDE Solid Coated & Solid Uncoated is £130 inc tax, and I'm sure it used to be more like £300?
    – e100
    Commented Sep 7, 2012 at 15:22
  • Agree about pricing. Pantone has dropped it's book pricing considerably in the past decade or so. They used to be much higher. I think the lack of their "yearly book upgrade" advice being taken has effected that. And I also think this is why every couple years they have an entirely new line of books.
    – Scott
    Commented Sep 7, 2012 at 18:36
  • Third Scenario: ° When a colour must be reproduced with greater fidelity than can be attained by the 4C process such as that for a logo, specifically, Bell blue for Bell Canada which has its own formula. CocaCola™ red is an example of another very specific and particular colour. A specific spot colour may not be available from the Pantone Matching System. It is still considered a spot colour, though.
    – Stan
    Commented Sep 7, 2013 at 0:22
  • 1
    <trivia> Halmark, the card people, don't print with CMYK process colours. They use only their own "spot" colours and screen them to produce their signature "look." They have developed all of the transforms, themselves, in house. </trivia>
    – Stan
    Commented Sep 11, 2013 at 16:34

What is a spot/Pantone colour?

Colours that are created without using any of the four "Colour Process" colour screens or dots are referred to as spot or solid colours. Pantone Inc. [ink?] has a variety of stock colour mixes organized by numbers and names for easy reference that are in wide use. They are called Pantone Colours by many.

Anyone can mix a spot colour of their own and name it anything they wish.

When should I use them

Use a spot colour when you need to reproduce a colour faithfully and cannot depend on the accuracy of the 4C printing process. A logo colour is an example. You'll still have to test how it prints, though, since the colour will change depending on what it's printed on. You wouldn't expect the same solid colour to appear the same on a white paper as it would on a brown kraft paper bag. (That's something called "conform to practice.") Don't proof on white and print on brown.

How do I pick one? (alternate answer)

When choosing a colour, again, "conform to practice."

Conform to practice dictates that you act as/do what the user will do. If you choose a colour to use onscreen, pick the colour from the screen. If you want to choose a colour to print, choose the colour from an actual printed sample.

There are a number of inexperienced designers that like a graphic on the screen, print it, and are disappointed that the colour doesn't look like it did when it was onscreen.

If you know that a poster will be used exclusively under sodium vapour lighting, then take a printed proof to the place where it will be displayed to see how it will look there.

Don't expect to get a true idea about how a colour combination looks in a hardware store, for another example, take the samples to the place where they will be used to see how they look in the actual environment.

Colour combinations change with the amount of light due to our visual apparatus and its foibles and peculiarities. Try to match the quantity as well as the quality of the light.

Artwork will not always be seen under standard or ideal viewing conditions. Try to simulate reality for the best applicable/practical/effective results.

Too, not all of us perceive the same, given the same stimulus. Men, have an incidence of colour perception difficulties of up to 7%. Some say more. Test for those when safety and security depend on perceptual discrimination.

Many different factors affect how we should choose a colour/colour combination.

  • 1
    The question is specifically about spot colours; this answer is about the general problem of picking colours. I think that talking about choosing to pick from screen or printed sample without reference to the specifics of spot colours is particularly likely to confuse.
    – e100
    Commented Aug 31, 2013 at 7:29
  • 2
    @e100 I have students who try to choose spot colours to print from their monitors. What I said applies in EVERY case. Conform to practice. It applies to choosing spot colours depending where they will be displayed as well as how they will be used. Choose your tools according to the problem you wish to solve. If I agreed with you, we'd both be wrong.
    – Stan
    Commented Aug 31, 2013 at 7:43

re: how do I pick one?

My favorite anecdote for this is from many years ago as I was chaperoning a group of design students through the Walker Art Center's in-house design team's offices.

They had us gather as they showed us how they pick colors for their posters, which were often two-color spot printed.

The process was as such:

  • someone grabs all the loose pantone swatches and puts them in a paper bag
  • they hold the bag over their head
  • someone comes along and blindly chooses 2 colors
  • do they look good together?
  • if so, that's the two colors. If not...
  • they get one more pick, and those are now the two colors.

Obviously not a solution in every case, but I really enjoyed seeing that particular process in action. Sometimes solutions are much simpler than we think. ;)

  • 1
    I toss them in the air... pick up the swatches that land face up. Discard the face down swatches. Repeat until there's only 2 left :)
    – Scott
    Commented Sep 7, 2012 at 18:37

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