Color Matching Systems II: Best Practices for Choosing & Using Color

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The second article in a series about color, color matching systems, and best practices.

The first article in this series explained where color matching systems such as Pantone and Toyo came from, and best practices for attaining good color in print projects that are further developed in this article.


Pots of ink at Purple Monkey silk screening. Some were purchased directly from a vendor using Pantone specifications and some were hand mixed by the owner, Michael Shoemaker.

First, let’s talk about color responsibility. When I choose Pantone 205 U, I am responsible for the way that color looks in the final product. This means I need to keep good records so I have documentation about every element in my file set-up: color space, color profile, and communications with the printer. That way, in the event of a dispute, I can prove to the printer that 205 U is what I ordered. The printer, then, is responsible for a re-run, not me.


My late model GTI color-viewing booth. For color accuracy the bulbs should be newer, the environment clutter-free, and painted neutral gray so nothing reflects unintentional color. If a client is super fussy about matching an approved color, press proofing the actual artwork with specified ink and paper is necessary.

Second, pay attention to the lighting condition in which you, your client, and printer specify and evaluate color. Colors we see on the printed page are the result of light simultaneously reflecting off the paper’s surface and being absorbed by it. In color theory, this relationship is referred to as subtractive versus additive color. Jackie Atkin at X-rite, owner of Pantone and Munsell, explains that this reflective/absorption relationship is why one color can look like what you expect on a smooth, neutral white paper and completely different on a color stock or other paper with a lot of texture.

Michael Riordan at Rochester Institute of Technology, in a phone interview, points out that it’s unrealistic to think the paper and print process used in normal design projects will match how Pantone chips are produced.


The same gray ink engraved on three different color papers. Notice the gray ink on green appears green-ish while the sample on brown looks blue and the one on red just looks dull.

The third important practice is to keep your color library current and provide vendors with samples from your library. To quote Tim Heyer, Senior Creative Manager at Pantone:

“Inks fade and paper yellows, both of which can affect the appearance and accuracy of a color. To be certain that you’re always referring to the most accurate color, Pantone recommends you replace your guides and books on a yearly basis.”


Friedrich Kerksieck of Small Fires Press in New Orleans, Louisiana: Pantone 205U hand mixed to print on his shop’s Vandercook letterpress.


When asked what lighting environment he uses to mix accurate color matches, Friedrich pointed to an office lamp, the light coming in from a window, and explained how he figures out numeric proportions from his Pantone Formula Guide.


Ca. 1970 stationery engraver’s ink sample. Inks for some specialty printing, such as engraving, are not universally standardized and often mixed on press. When possible, attend press checks to approve color, or press proof to make sure the color pleases both client and designer.

The fourth element in your color matching arsenal is understanding expectations about color and how exact a color needs to be. Some clients (and designers) are quite happy with getting close to matching a specific color, while others insist color be spot-on.


Investigation attempting to match current Pantone chip with 7-year old engraved stationery project on Velké Losiny 85% cotton/15% linen paper hand made in the Czech Republic.


The original job (right) and press proof (left) in which we attempted to match the ink color using the same hand-engraved die and paper purchased from Atlantic Paper, Velké Losiny distributor, earlier this year. The paper is different because it is made by hand and batches vary. An exact ink match was never achieved but the job was accepted by the client.

Dawn Nye, Solutions and Services Marketing Manager at Konica Minolta Business Solutions U.S.A., Inc. reminds us that print cannot reproduce the full spectrum of colors we’ve come to expect on screen. If a client is looking at a color on their iPhone, you can bet it won’t match any spot color chip in your library! Instead, provide your client with a Pantone, Toyo, or other color sample of your own, one you know is compatible with the inks your printer is using.

What happens when your business is web-based? I asked Toby Hextall, Head of Product Design at MOO, Inc., the online printing company, how they handle spot color. He explained their manner of dealing with color matching is with personalized service. When a client has special color needs, it is best to contact Moo directly. Further, if a customer is dissatisfied with the product as delivered, Moo will re-do and fix it.


Spoonflower color guide using hexadecimal code. They also offer a color map with 1,500 colors.

The most interesting color matching model I discov
ered while researching this series is from Spoonflower online textile printer. Want to design fabric on your laptop? Order a color guide, on fabric of your choice, and receive one in the mail enabling you to design with a pretty good notion of how it will print at Spoonflower.

Thus proving that meeting client expectations, and your own, is possible.

Color – The Professional’s Guide: Understanding, Appreciating and Mastering Color in Art and Design
  1. 100 Years of Color by Katie Greenwood

  2. Color – The Professional’s Guide: Understanding, Appreciating and Mastering Color in Art and Design