How to Pick the Right Pantone Swatch When Designing for Print

January 12, 2018

Designing with the right swatch in mind is imperative to a top notch production run. A color on screen can look completely different when it's printed, and color matching is all about knowing what to expect.

The important thing to know up front is that you can't print colors accurately using RGB or HEX colors. RGB and HEX are color models that are used only on screens, because they're created using light. On the other hand, Pantone and CMYK colors are made using ink pigments. What's possible with light and what's possible with ink are completely different, and that's why it's important to design for production using Pantone or CMYK colors from the start. Here are the essentials that you need to know when picking the right swatch.

Choose the right swatch from your screen

To speak the same language as your printer (or the team here at Lumi), we recommend having your own Pantone books — especially if you're getting projects printed often. When you send a Pantone swatch, you're essentially telling the production team what you want your color to look like. 

To color match using an on-screen swatch, it's best to work backward. First, pick the color that you want on your screen. Then find a Pantone swatch in your book to match — coated or uncoated depending, on your print surface. The number of the swatch that you pick from the book may not match the swatch that you started with on screen. That's because your screen is using a different color model (RGB) and every computer's colors are calibrated slightly differently.

Know what you're printing on

Pantone has two essential versions of their color guide — coated and uncoated. The difference between coated and uncoated swatches is a big deal, and it's all about knowing what you’re printing on. If you're looking at the same swatch on the uncoated and coated Pantone books side-by-side, the actual ink is same on each. It's the printing surface that's different.

Ink takes on the finish of the material it’s printed on. Uncoated paper absorbs ink, so the color loses some of its vibrancy and has a matte finish. On a coated surface, the ink sits on top of the material, retaining more vibrancy, usually with a glossy finish.

So if you’re printing on something coated like poly tape, choosing a coated Pantone swatch will give you a more accurate representation of the final print. But if you’re printing on a kraft paper tape, that’s matte so you should choose an uncoated color.

The difference between coated and uncoated Pantone swatches is more drastic in dark colors than in light colors. That’s because dark colors have more color pigment in them. On the other hand, light colors have a high percentage of transparent white ink, which is colorless. With more pigment, dark colors have more potential for variation.

Keep in mind that if you're printing on top of a non-white, uncoated surface like a kraft paper tape, that also affects your ink color, since the ink will soak into the brown paper. Similarly, when printing on transparent materials like poly tape, you should account for other colors showing through. 

Ask for a color drawdown

If you've picked the perfect swatch, and still want a gut check on your color, that's what color drawdowns are for. A color drawdown is a swatch of your Pantone color on the exact material it will be printed on. Keep in mind that drawdowns add time to prepress, so they will extend your lead time by about a week.

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