Printing Lingo: PMS Spot Colors vs Process CMYK Colors

Some printing customers like to set up their own artwork files and I admire and welcome their desire to be a part of the creative process. However, we occasionally receive artwork files that have been designed with software that is not particularly well suited for the printing industry. For example, the software may output a design to a color desktop printer just fine but it does not allow for the color separation needed in commercial four-color Process printing (CMYK).

Even if the designer uses professional layout software and CMYK color separation is possible, sometimes the colors in the file are inadvertently set up as PMS (Spot) colors when CMYK is the intention.  In fact, this is a very common issue encountered by commercial printers.  That is why understanding the difference between PMS (Spot) colors and Process (CMYK) colors is very important for new designers.

What are Process Colors?

Process colors are created on the printing press by applying separate layers of 4 ink colors – Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black (CMYK) – in various concentrations on the paper.  By layering these four colors, just about any imaginable color can be created.  CMYK Process printing is commonly called 4-Color Printing or Full Color Printing and is generally used for printed matter that contains multi-colored designs and photographs such as full color books, brochures, flyers and postcards.

What are PMS Colors?

PMS colors, also known as Spot colors or Pantone Matching System colors, are specific color formulas that will reproduce accurately in print.  Instead of simulating colors by layering multiple ink colors as in the CMYK 4-Color Process, PMS ink colors are pre-mixed from existing color formulas and assigned a standardized number.  Using a PMS color provides assurance of having consistent color regardless of when or where the printed piece is produced.  However, because PMS ink colors are specific formulations, there is usually an upcharge.  PMS colors are commonly used for a logo or text that requires a consistent appearance, such as on envelopes, letterhead and some business cards.

How to Avoid Unexpected Results.

It is important that you don’t use PMS Spot colors in your artwork design if you intend to print your piece using CMYK 4-color process. When designing for CMYK 4-color process, it is always a good idea to refer to the Pantone Process Book and then use the Process color that is closest to the desired PMS Spot color.  Otherwise when your PMS Spot color is converted to a CMYK Process color to create printed output, it could yield a result you weren’t expecting.  If in doubt, always consult with your printer before getting too deep into your project.

Have more questions about colors and inks?  Just give us a call.

Take care!  Keith

About the Author

Keith Beaty is the owner of Formax Printing Solutions in St. Louis, MO. Formax provides a complete array of offset and digital printing services. Specialty areas include full-color printing, all types of softcover books, laminated printing, plus fulfillment and mailing services. If you ever have a printing question or project you would like to discuss, Keith is always happy to help. He can be reached at 314-434-5500 or 866-367-6221. Keith and Formax have been providing worry-free printing and related services for over 30 years.

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