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The (really) Basics of Ink Colors – Part one

Pantone? PMS? Process? Spot? CMYK?
Over the past 15 years I have seen a great deal of change in how documents are created for all the various media outlets available to us today. One of the more common issues that I see, regardless of the media to be used, is inconsistency in the use and creation of colors in a design project. In this article, I’ll try to explain some basic concepts and guidelines that will hopefully help you understand the various color models and prepare you projects for production.

Methods to the madness.
There are many different methods of reproducing color, but they all basically break down into two categories. Process Color, which is the combination of four ink pigments (cyan, magenta, yellow, black or CMYK) to create different colors (think mixing blue and yellow to get green) and Spot Color, which is using a single specific ink/thread/paint to reproduce your color (envision always picking the same color crayon for writing out your name). Both methods have their individual advantages and disadvantages, and they are often used together in various combinations to complement each other.

What color do I use? This is a question that someone most commonly asks themselves from an aesthetic view first, and as a technical concern second. The key to success with your color is to look at the various media and uses your design will be used in, and choosing a color that can be reproduced across as many different media as possible.

How do I know which colors will work best? One of the most reliable ways to check your color is to invest in a Pantone Ink Swatch book. There are several different flavors of these books available, but for most people I would recommend the Pantone Color Bridge set. This set of swatches, which contains a book for coated/glossy paper and a book for uncoated/bond paper, will show you a solid swatch of an ink color when printed as a Spot Color, and also a swatch of how the color would appear if it were converted to Process Color.

Many of the colors will match very well, while others will not match at all. This side-by-side comparison can help you find a color that works well in both printing methods. An interesting fact to note is that there is no difference in the inks used between the coated and uncoated swatches. In fact, the ink can come out of the same can and look very different when used on different papers. It may even be desirable to choose different Pantone colors for when you print on coated and uncoated paper to visually match the color. With a little bit of planning in the design phase of any project, you can make use of these tools to help make sure you get the look you want, no matter where you go with it.

In Part Two of this post, we will discuss RGB color, monitors and best practices for defining and maintaining your corporate colors on the web and mobile devices.