Color is one of the most important yet misunderstood elements of creating a great display design. While things like CMYK and Pantone are second nature to most designers, it's a foreign language to everyone else. The goal of this post is not to dive too deep into the technical aspects of color but instead explain what you need to know in simple terms. We listed the Cheat Sheet/CliffsNotes version of this blog at the very top so it's easy to find helpful information fast. We recommend taking 2-3 minutes and reading the entire blog because it will help you understand this important topic a little better moving forward.
Cheat Sheet: What You Need To Know Summary
1. If you need or want a specific color, use Pantones. (When in doubt, use Pantones)
2. Sections of your art using images, gradients, and overlays can only print in CMYK. If you need this section to be a specific color, you must remove the gradient or overlay.
3. CMYK colors have a larger accepted range of variance when printed. This means if you say you want a dark blue sky in your design, the final print, while technically a dark blue and printed correctly, could be a little darker or lighter than you had envisioned.
4. CMYK colors will vary more from print-to-print than Pantone colors.
5. Avoid "fringe colors" if possible, especially when using CMYK.
6. You cannot accurately judge color through a computer or phone screen. All digital tools (renderings, images) we provide are not intended to be used as color matching tools. We offer hard proofs on our products for color matching purposes
What is CMYK?
CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black. It's important to know this because these are the colors that will be combined and layered to make other colors and images in CMYK artwork.
What is a Pantone (PMS)?
The Pantone Matching System (PMS) is a standardized color matching system created by Pantone Inc. This system uses specific color numbers, color names, and color swatches to ensure a consistent color match. For example, you would not print something in blue using the Pantone System, instead you choose a specific blue like Blue 072 C.
Why Use CMYK?
In short, it's simple to do and sometimes needed.
You can use CMYK when you don't need a specific color match. Let's say you ran a donations fundraiser and you met your goal. You're having a banner stand created with a fundraising thermometer graphic filled to the top in red to show you met your goal. In this case, any red will do. So when you're creating your art, you can just pick a red on the color selection tool and move on quickly.
You will also use CMYK for all gradients, overlays, or images that are in your art. This makes sense because you have to mix colors to create the effect achieved with a gradient or overlay and images aren't taken in a single color. Anytime there is more than one color involved to create a visual effect, you can't use a Pantone in that section of the art.
Why Use Pantone (PMS) Colors?
You use Pantones when you need to be specific and consistent. Make sure your logo and important colors are utilizing Pantones every time you have something printed, anywhere.
Tiffany&Co is famous for their Tiffany Blue Boxes but really they are Pantone 1837 boxes (a color Tiffany's owns). That specific color is essential to Tiffany&Co's branding. They use this Pantone to ensure the color is as consistent as possible across all materials. They also use the Pantone to ensure consistency on each run. For example, if Tiffany's has boxes printed in January at one facility and then again in March at another facility, each print team can calibrate their machines and match to the specific Pantone color to ensure all the boxes Tiffany's receives are nearly identical in color. Pantone colors will work the same for your brand.
Avoid "Fringe Colors" in CMYK
Avoiding what we are calling "fringe colors" is especially important when using CMYK. What we call a "fringe color" is a color that has a strong second color presence. An example of this could be wanting an ocean element in your design and choosing a tealish blue for the color. If this element is printed in CMYK, there is a higher chance that the final print, while technically correct, could pickup more of the green values in the teal and give the water a greener appearance than what you wanted. In a situation like this, it is wise to choose a specific Pantone and really limit the potential color variation.
You Can't Judge Colors Through A Computer Or Phone.
There is no way to accurately judge exactly how colors will print or have printed through a computer or phone screen. There are too many variables like monitor settings, lighting, materials, etc. The renderings and images we provide are not meant to be used as color matching tools. If you want to ensure a specific color will print exactly the way you expect, we offer hard proof options. A hard proof is an 11" x 7" sample that contains sections of your art printed on the material that will be used in the final display. This is the best way for you to see how your display will actually print.
Colors can be complicated but they are important to the final outcome of your display. We recommend using Pantones when possible and ordering hard proofs if you have any concerns with how a color or art element will print. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to our design team for professional help and advice.