How to use the Pantone guide when working with design and print | A review of the print industry colour referencing system, Pantone with an explanation of spot colours and 4-colour process.

Understanding colour is one of the most important elements of branding. Corporates spend millions on research before deciding on their marketing objectives and rolling out a carefully thought out plan, which will target the specific audience in mind. Colour plays a major part in that decision and draws on emotions, which ultimately gives a visual perception helping us make decisions.

Matching colour throughout the brand on different substrates is a headache for most designers and marketers. It is important to understand the colour referencing each industry adopts, how it is used and how it can benefit you the most.


In the printing industry we use Pantone, which is a system for defining colour and inks. Pantone inks are the worldwide standard adopted to print on paper or board.

Each colour has a unique code called a Pantone Reference, which is used to define the colour that the designer and printer understand. There is an industry guide for these colours called a Pantone Reference Guide, which is a swatch of all the available colour as shown in the title of this article.

Using Pantone, in theory you can be confident that whether a brochure is printed in England, Asia or Australia, etc it will look the same.

It should be noted that slight colour variations can occur depending on different papers the ink is printed on, printing process and press used to produce the literature. This is due to limitations in technology and is discussed further here.

Spot Colours & CMYK (Process) Colours

Pantone colours can be used in different ways within the printing process.

A spot colour is a single colour individually printed on to paper and was the original method of printing devised hundreds of years ago.

Alternatively, and which is the standard expectation today Pantone colours can be printed by using four spot colours cyan, magenta, yellow and black. Mixing these four process colours can enable the reproduction of over 3,000 colours and covers the majority of individual spot colours available within the Pantone Range. This printing process is known as either CMYK colour, Process Colour, the 4 Colour Printing Process or Full Colour and is used to produce to everything from graphics, images and text on the page.

Pantone Spot Colours & CMYK Process Colours
Pantone Guide – Spot Colours and the 4 CMYK Process Colours used to make up thousands of different colours


There are limitations to full colour printing as some colours cannot be reproduced exactly, such as oranges, metallic colours and fluorescents. For a better understanding see our article on Avoiding the pitfalls of Pantone and CMYK reproduction 

Using Pantone Reference Guides & Swatches

Using Pantone at the design stage

Most designers will use Adobe Creative Suite at the design for print stage. Packages common for setting up documents for printing include Indesign, Illustrator and Photoshop. All these packages have built in colour swatches so that artwork can be set up using the Pantone colour standard. There are other industry standards such as Quark.

Avoid using Microsoft packages such as Word or PowerPoint, they are not industry compatible and your results won’t be guaranteed.

It can be useful to refer to a Pantone book (Swatch) during the design process, which can be purchased from most good graphics retailers. This is advisable due to the limitations of what a screen is able display. The screen is unable to reproduce the colours that will be printed on press as it displays using RGB colour and not CMYK – avoiding the pitfalls of Pantone and CMYK reproduction explains more about this.

Pantone books aren’t cheap, but depending on how often you need to refer to Pantone Colours it can be a worthwhile investment. You can always ask your designer or print partner for further help and advice.

Pantone Guide Range | Print Worx
Pantone Guide Range

The use of Pantone swatches during printing

Commercial Printers will often refer to pantone swatches during the printing process alongside the press technology. A Pantone swatch is used as a quick reference to ensure the colours on the printed sheet are as required by the customer.

The latest presses have colour measurement systems which can scan a printed sheet during the printing process, this scan is then used to adjust the press settings accordingly, ensuring accuracy of colour reproduction through production.

Understanding Pantone references

If you refer to Adobe software or a Pantone Swatch you will be able to find the reference number or colour breakdown of the colour ink you are interested in. There is a reference for the spot Pantone colour as standard and if you are looking to create a specific colour using the 4-colour printing process you will find percentage (%) breakdowns for all 4 CMYK colours, which equates to how this colour will be printed to achieve the desired result.

Here is an example of CMYK on the right, with solid colour on the left with RGB and HTML with tints of the CMYK process colours below.

Pantone Swatch with colour breakdowns CMYK, RGB & HTML
Pantone Swatch with colour breakdowns CMYK, RGB & HTML
Pantone Guide Tints of CMYK
Pantone Guide Tints of 25%, 50%. 75% and 100% of CMYK Process Colours


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: