San Antonio Ad Agency Explains Mystery of PMS—Colors that is.

Tracy Marlowe  |  August 26, 2009

Sorry all of you out there who are seeking relief from monthly irritability. This post is about the printing industry standard color palatte, otherwise known as PMS.

First things first, PMS stands for Pantone Matching System. (But that's a mouthful, so hence the acronym.)

I'm sure there isn't anyone out there that hasn't at one point stood in front of the magnificent wall of color chips in the paint department of Home Depot or Lowe's. So pretty, so mesmerizing. Who needs to wait for a post rainstorm rainbow when you can just go to the home improvement paint department?  PMS is kind of like that, except it's for printing presses, not walls.

When designers create their artwork, they typically select their colors using small, hand-held chip books that fan out with that beautiful rainbow. Each color has a corresponding number. And each color has a CMYK process match (see my earlier post about CMYK.) so designers can have the option of printing it in 4 color process if needed.

When a job is sent to a printer it is either going to print CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black ...if this confuses you, see that same earlier post) or PMS colors. The difference is that CMYK printing uses those same 4 colors to create any desired color by combining them. But PMS uses pre-mixed colors - like the ones you get at the hardware store.

Some jobs use both. In these jobs, the printing press has more than 4 ink wells. Ones for the cyan, magenta, yellow and black. And then 2 to 4 more for  PMS inks (or varnishes, but we'll address that in another blog post.)

Simple, right?

Well, just in case, I'll let you in on a few important tips to help you have a more cohesive relationship with your PMS color books.

1. What kind of paper you are printing on? This is hugely important because some PMS colors look VERY different on uncoated papers vs coated papers. Your agency's creative representative should be able to provide you color chips that will show you the difference.

2. Don't trust the comp or the computer screen for color. Always ask your art director or designer for a color chip to verify it's what you want. Unfortunately, the color on individual monitors can vary with the way people have it calibrated and the environment it is in. And all office printers are different and will interpret colors differently.

3. Check the process match. If this is a corporate color you are determining — something that will inevitably be printing at some point in time in CMYK, then PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE check the process match of that color to make sure you like it. There's nothing worse gloating over a new, beautiful, PMS printed business card only to discover the same color looks like baby poop when converted to CMYK on your company brochure.

4. Don't sweat the suffixes. Those letters at the end of the PMS numbers are just on-screen simulations of what the color will print like. It is, in fact, the same color. But  just in case you're curious...

U = uncoated paper
C = coated paper
M = matte paper
CV = computer video (electronic simulation)
CVU = computer video - uncoated
CVC = computer video - coated

You might be wondering "So when should I use PMS and when should I use CMYK?" Well, not to avoid the question, but it really depends on the project. If it's a business card that has two distinct colors in the design, then PMS is the way to go. But I have also seen some very complicated brochures printing in PMS colors. Large solid blocks of color often look better when printed as a solid PMS than when printed as a CMYK mix. But discuss the pros and cons with your designer or agency. They should be able to explain how they are recommending your project be printed and why.

I hope this helps. After all, I don't belive using PMS needs to leave anyone irritable.

by Trish McCabe Rawls

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