Making sense of Pantone and CMYK when custom branding your packaging

Making sense of Pantone and CMYK when custom branding your packaging

Nov 22nd 2019

There are so many acronyms in the world of colors - PMS (or Pantone), CMYK, HEX and RGB are mentioned frequently. What’s the difference?

HEX and RGB are color models that dictate how colors should render on a screen. They are ideally used for things like websites, animation or a jumbotron. HEX uses a mix of six numbers and characters, while RGB uses three sets of three numbers). They are extremely similar; however, RGB allows you to add opacity to a share and HEX does not.

Pantone (PMS) and CMYK, on the other hand, refer to colors rendered by printing inks. They relate to actual pigments, whereas HEX and RGB refer to colors that are generated by light.

So if you're printing your packaging, you want to be working in the world of Pantone and CMYK. 

What is the difference between Pantone and CMYK?

PANTONE

Pantone colors are “spot” colors. When printing, the ink being laid down should match the chosen PMS color. What is “Pantone” and “PMS”? In 1963, Pantone (a company) created the Pantone Matching System (PMS), which numerically codifies and systematizes different colors to create consistency across the industry. Designers and printers ideally purchase swatch books from the Pantone corporation so they can visually see and confirm how an ink will look when printed.

With a Pantone print, each different color utilizes a different ink. If your project is PANTONE 286, PANTONE Red 032, and Black, than it requires 3 colors (and in most instances, would require 3 different printing plates - more on that later!).

CMYK

CMYK, often referred to as “process colors” or "four color process" are what most people are familiar with because it is what is behind home printers. CMYK printing utilizes four different colors at one time - cyan, magenta, yellow and black.

A printed image is actually made with tons of miniscule dots of color that, when looked at together, create the color and image shown on your computer.

These dots (visually) blend together and those four base colors can render almost any color imaginable.

The Pantone Corporation has released a CMYK Guide, which illustrates 2,868 CMYK process colors and their corresponding values. They released this guide recognizing how many prints are done in a four-color process, and saw that the same need filled by their Pantone Matching System was also important for CMYK.

Note that there is also a SEVEN color process system which adds Orange, Green and Violet (OGV) to the CMYK. Adding these three colors allows for even better and more accurate colors to be printed. However, a seven color process is significantly more expensive and not frequently used for packaging. 

Coated Versus Uncoated Printing Surfaces

There is an important distinction between coated versus uncoated printing surfaces.

The same exact ink will look one way when laid on a “coated” surface versus an “uncoated” surface. 

For example, a poly mailer is a coated surface (as are coated papers). When ink is put on a poly mailer, it sits on top of the surface. On the other hand when that same ink is applied to a Kraft Mailer or an uncoated piece of paper, it gets absorbed into the material. The coated surface generally has a brighter finish while the uncoated has a more matte or faded finish. 

The following graphic helps to convey the difference; however, remember that these colors are in RGB so they don’t actually accurately convey the PMS colors!

When selecting the color you want for a print, first determine if the printing substrate is coated or uncoated. Pantone offers an uncoated and a coated color matching booklet, for both PMS and CMYK.

Be sure to use the right one for your specific jobs so you have a more accurate sense of how the color you’ve chosen will render on your printing substrate.

Which is better, CMYK (process) or Pantone (spot) colors?

There isn’t one great answer.

CMYK is incredible because you can render virtually any color using them. With Pantone colors, you are limited to the number of colors your printing press is capable of printing. 

However, because of the “dots” approach used for CMYK printing, the print quality may not be as good. More importantly, color accuracy can’t be perfectly guaranteed with CMYK whereas the very origin and definition of the Pantone system means you should match pretty closely.

That said, choosing between CMYK and Pantone is not really the question for you to answer.

The main question is how you are printing.

If your materials (mailers, boxes, notecards, etc) are being printed using a digital print process, they will likely utilize CMYK colors. In a digital printing process, software translates an image on a screen to the printer, which renders the image on a substrate (using the CMYK process approach).

If your materials are being printed using flexographic or offset printing, they can use either Pantone or CMYK colors.

Flexographic or offset printing is a process by which a printing plate is produced that matches your artwork. Ink is laid on the printing plate, and the plate then “stamps” your printing surface with that ink. 

Flexographic and offset printers can utilize a four color CMYK process or PMS colors.

Most ecommerce brands aren’t choosing whether or not their packaging is being printed on a digital press, a four-color CMYK process flexo or offset press, or a Pantone flexo or offset press. 

You should therefore ask how your material is being printed. Once you know what type of printing is being used, you can then determine whether or not you need to be thinking about PMS or CMYK colors, and develop your art file and color strategy accordingly.

An art file that is going to be printed with Pantone inks should ultimately be translated into specific PMS colors for each layer or color in that file. Much of the custom printed packaging EcoEnclose produces is done flexographically with Pantone inks. Typically, a company sends us an art file and then specifies their desired PMS color (or two colors if it is a two color print) for that file.

Depending on the print, selecting the PMS colors may be your job as the customer, or in more complex, multi-color prints, it may be the job of the printer (if the art file requires someone to build and layer PMS colors to achieve a final image). 

If you’ve made the decision on the PMS colors for your art, be sure they are labeled accurately in your art file and then call them out in your proof or communications with your printer.

When you will be printing something digitally, you’ll generally want to translate your art file into CMYK colors (not RGB!).

How to Achieve a Good Color Match

What can you do to help ensure your printed material matches your expected colors?

First, when selecting your CMYK or PMS color, it is recommended that you utilize a physical color matching book, available from the Pantone Corporation. This allows you to match colors on paper, rather than on a screen, given that RGB or HEX colors on a screen are not designed to exactly match a print out.

Kraft Substrate (AKA let's make this entire process more complicated!)

Much of what EcoEnclose custom prints for companies is actually a kraft material - such as corrugated shipping boxes, kraft mailers, padded mailers and apparel mailers. This adds a layer of complexity to color matching, since Pantone books are all on a white background.

Printing inks are not opaque. This means that the color of the paper effects the final result of the print.

PMS colors applied to a kraft background will typically be darker and "browner" than on a white surface.

This is even more important for CMYK printing, which “assumes” the substrate being printed on is white and “utilizes” the white when mixing the four colors to create the desired final color. A CMYK print on a kraft substrate is going to be darker than it is on a white background, and for some colors (such as browns, greens and oranges), the actual printed outcome may be quite different than what is on a white paper (or a white screen).

The following is an example of an original art file and the final printed product. As you can see the colors are certainly close, but there are some colors that are slightly darker and browner than in the art file.

Ink Absorption

Additionally, even though Pantone has color matching books for coated and uncoated surfaces, they don’t fully capture the unique distinctions of every single uncoated surface. Our paper-based mailers are 100% recycled, making them more porous than your average uncoated surface.

Flexo, inkjet and toner inks also all absorb differently into a printing material, and even different versions (different brands, different ink carriers, etc) of the same type of ink will also absorb differently. Toner and inkjet are both forms of digital CMYK process printing. An inkjet sprays little liquid dots of ink while a toner sprays actual pigment (in a powder form) onto a printing substrate. Inkjet inks get absorbed much more than toner does. 

Flexographic inks do get absorbed into our boxes and paper-based mailers but much less than inkjet inks do. Additionally, each of the inks absorbs slightly differently when they are being printed on our corrugated shipping boxes versus our padded mailers versus our rigid mailers (as each of these has a different level of smoothness and recycled content).

What does this mean for color matching?

Stock Pantone Ink: If your packaging is being printed with EcoEnclose using our flexographic printing process in one of our stock Pantone colors, rest assured that we have years of experience with these colors and are confident in how they will render on your material. If you want to see for yourself before ordering, we can usually provide you with a sample of a printed package in the color(s) you are considering.

Custom Pantone Ink: If you are printing using a custom PMS color beyond our stock offerings (which we offer for a fee), you are printing on a kraft colored surface, and you are very focused on achieving an exact right color match, we recommend requesting a drawdown of your desired ink. A draw down is done by inking your actual printing surface with the ink color you are considering, so you can see how it renders on a swatch. 

This will help you see what how the custom ink will render on a shipping box or paper-based mailer. If you’re printing on a white surface (such as our 100% recycled poly mailers) you should not need a drawdown, but make sure you are choosing your PMS (coated or uncoated) colors accurately.

Digital, Multi-Color Prints: If your kraft packaging is being printed with us digitally, and is therefore using a CMYK process, we will work closely with you on colors. For some prints, particularly those with pinks, greens, blues and greys, CMYK renders colors fairly accurately even on the kraft surface. For other colors, particularly oranges and browns, color matching can be more difficult.

EcoEnclose will match your colors as best as we can with these multi-color digital prints, and if we run into issues, we will work with you to agree on coloring before printing your job. In most cases, this means we will send you a photo of the print to some cases, this may mean we will send you a physical printed package for you to review. 

In-line Production Prints: At high volumes, some of our mailers are printed in-line (i.e. while the mailers are being manufactured). Depending on the mailer, these can be printed using Pantone colors or four color CMYK flexo printing process. Please work with us to clarify the printing process being used to align on your art and color expectations for these large quantity, in-line custom prints. 

Not working with EcoEnclose? Every printer has a different approach and level of accountability to color matching. Most will focus on printing the color in the file itself. That means they may or may not be attuned to issues of colors rendering differently on a porous or kraft colored substrate. We recommend requesting draw downs or physical proofs. This often means an additional up front fee; however, it is the only way to ensure accurate color matching.