Why is a PMS color different from its 4-color build?

Production Tips & Tricks

This is a common problem. When we as designers, go to choose colors for a job one of the great places to turn is a swatch book, we can see what the color looks like and pick what we want, load them in our program and start designing. It will look great on screen and may even look great off your printer. But you have to be careful.

Pantone color chipsA PMS color is a specially formulated ink recipe. The ink company specifically mixes certain pigments to produce that color. When we order it, it comes in one can pre-mixed and ready to go. Actually we have our own ink mixer, but it uses the same recipe and we make it accordingly. And this gives us a PMS or spot color.

4-color builds can be done of any PMS color and some are very close to the actual spot color, but most aren’t. When you do a 4-color build of that spot color we are making a new recipe. Instead of using those special pigments we are now using cyan, magenta, yellow and black to try and replicate the PMS color. That doesn’t always work and it results in a color shift. Typically it mutes the color or flattens it out. It may not be as vibrant or “pop” as much as you wanted.

As long as you aren’t trying to match a PMS color, you might be okay. If the proof looks good to you, you are good to go. But if your company has a specific PMS color for its logo or corporate color and you are trying to match that with a 4-color build, it won’t happen.

“But it looks right on my printout and on the first proof you gave me.” Welcome to color copiers and digital presses. When you print to a higher-end digital device it pays attention to the colors that you have used. If it sees a PMS color the machine will throw-away the color values in your document and then refer to a special color recipe chart it has and substitute its color recipe before printing. The recipe it has is calibrated to print that PMS color as close to the original as possible. You have no control over this process.

Even if you have switched the color profile from spot to process, the machine will still swap out the color recipe. We did a test to see, we picked a PMS color in Quark and InDesign, then we went into the color palette and changed the make-up of that PMS color. We changed it to 100% cyan, but did not change the name or the fact that it was a spot color. The name is what is key here, that is what the digital printer is looking for. We made a block of color on the page and printed it to the copier. Our screen showed the block as 100% cyan, but the printout showed the correct PMS color. The copier had over-ridden our new color recipe for its own and then printed the file.

There is a PMS swatch book call “PMS Bridge”. This book will show the spot color and 4-color build of that PMS side-by-side. It is a very helpful tool for understanding what will happen to a PMS color when it is converted.

If you have questions about using 4-color builds ask your salesperson or CSR and they will be glad to assist you.

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