Understanding Printing: Pantone or Process?

If you’ve ever had to order printing either for personal use or for your company, you know that the available options are endless. How do you know if you need pantone or process? Offset or digital? What’s a pms #? The following is an easy-to-understand guide with all the information you need to know before starting a printing project.


Let’s start with the definitions:

PANTONE: Pantone is a coding system for different ink colors. Each color is assigned a number and is created using a specific formula. A PMS number is the number assigned to each pantone color. They can be definted as either C or U, meaning Coated or Uncoated (Coated sheets are extremely smooth and generally have a shine to them, whereas uncoated sheets may be smooth but you can still feel the texture of the paper). Generally, you would want to use a C color on a coated stock, since the formula was specifically designed to show up best on coated paper (Same goes for U and uncoated). There are also several pantone colors that have a name rather than a code, such as “Cool Gray 10” or “Reflex Blue”. When a printer uses pantone colors, he buys that specific ink and loads it into his press. Your local art store will most often carry a pantone swatch book, which shows all of the different colors available (they can also be purchased online).

PROCESS: Process color, otherwise known as 4-color process or CMYK, is a blend of 4 standard ink colors; Cyan, magenta, yellow and black. These are printer’s primaries and can be combined to create the majority of visible ink colors. Process color is used on a press that is 4-color and above and the four individual inks are loaded into the press.

So the question is, which type is best for you?

Pantone is generally used for companies that have a logo which needs to be printed in specific “company” colors. For example, Coca-Cola uses a signature red for all of their packaging. If they printed this red in process color, it could come out slightly different every time, and one bottle on the shelf might look different from the one next to it. The same goes for stationary, brochures and marketing material. If color is part of your branding, you’ll want to use specific pantone colors so that every time you print, you are assured that the color will remain consistent. Pantone is also very important for projects that have “full coverage” or “heavy coverage”. This refers to the percentage of the page covered by ink. If you are printing a solid red background, you are best off using a pantone red. A pressman using 4 color process would need to apply 100% magenta to insure your red comes out solid, therefore giving everything else on the page a slightly pinkish appearance. Finally, metallic ink, such as silver or gold, and neon or fluorescent ink can only be created using pantone.

Process color has a variety of functions. First, it is necessary for photographs and highly complex colored images. Very rarely are jobs printed with more than 5 pantone colors, and more often than not with only 1-3. Presses can only hold so many inks at once, and the expense for using higher quantities of pantone colors is enormous. 4-color process can very cost-efficient…but beware. Many online printing companies offer extremely low pricing on 4-color work. These companies do “gang-run” printing, meaning that they run a large number of jobs all at the same time, using a large press. This process is perfect for mass mailings, postcards and flyers which are not overly color-sensitive. However, because all of the jobs are run at the same time, there is no individual attention paid to each project. Therefore some colors may look muted, whereas others may come out with the wrong hue. If you want to produce high-quality photographic work, you need to go to a printer who is going to run your job by itself, and can control the color on press to make sure the final product meets your standards. This will be more expensive than a gang-run company, but the results are worth it.


DIGITAL: Digital printing is a process in which files are taken directly from a computer and translated onto a sheet of paper, just as with a laser printer. However unlike your desktop printer, digital pressees are equipped with a “rip” which is used for color management on press. With a digital press, you can test out various color levels just as you would on a real printing press. This separates them from color copyers, which allow for only minimal control over color output. Digital printing is best used for small-quantity, small-size, 4-color runs. Digital presses can NOT print Pantone ink. A standard digital press can only hold a 12″x18″ peice of paper, and is generally priced per impression, or page-side. There is minimal press setup, and therefore becomes very cost-efficient when printing 1-500 copies. Digital printing is also advantageous in that it takes very little time to produce a job. A digital job can be printed in a matter of minutes and will often look just as clean and vibrant as an offset job. Unfortunately there are many limitations on the paper that can be used. Besides the size restriction, paper must also adhere to weight and texture restrictions. Only smooth paper stocks should be used on a digital press, and nothing above a 12pt cover can be run.

OFFSET: Offset, or litho, printing is done using a traditional printing press. Files are translated from the computer to metal plates (previously done using film, but currently done directly), which are set into the press and used for each individual color. A job printing in 4-color process would require 4 plates, where as a job printing with black and 1 pantone color would need 2 plates. There is always a good amount of setup involved in an offset job, including the creation of plates, setting up the press, and washing up ink in between runs. Offset printing is a must when producing large-runs…whereas the price of printing one digital sheet of paper ranges from $0.40-1.50 per side, one side in a large offset run can be less than a penny. Offset is also required for jobs using pantone inks. In addition, a standard offset printing press can print on a variety of different paper weights and textures, including super-heavy stocks, linens, felts, and parchment stocks. Offset printers can also be used for thermography, or raised ink printing. This process is very close in price to standard flap printing and is used most often on business cards and invitations. Just remember that offset printing requires a minimum quantity of at least 500 to be economically efficient, and requires more time, both in setup and drying.


Besides digital and offset printing, there are also a variety of more high-end printing process that are used. These include engraving, embossing, and foil-stamping:

ENGRAVING: A metal die is created and pushed against the paper creating raised printing. (Note, there are two primary ways to see the difference between engraving and thermo printing: 1. An engraved piece will have an indent on the backside wherever there is ink on the front. 2. Though not always, thermo will often have a glossy appearance and may contain small lumps in the ink, whereas engraved printing will always be matte in color and will often come up farther off the page).

EMBOSSING: Embossing is similar to engraving, however ink is applied after the paper has been pushed up. Engraving is most often used for intricate type and finely detailed images, whereas embossing works best for larger images and basic shapes. Embossing can be “blind”, which means that the paper is pushed up, but there is no ink applied. The process is considered high-end and creates a three-dimensional look to a piece.

FOIL-STAMPING: Instead of using ink, foil-stamping uses actual strips of foil, either matte or metallic, which are then pressed into paper. Foil-stamping is most often utilized on heavier stocks, often dark-colored stocks for items like folders and promotional products. Foil-stamping should only be used on text or logos that are reasonably thick, and do not take up too large of an area. If you foil-stamp an ornamentally detailed image or a shape that is too large, you risk creating cracks in the foil. An advantage of foil-stamping is that it appears very high-end, but is actually fairly inexpensive to produce.


Just as quick brief, no matter how you print, you need to have the right kind of files. 4-color process and 1-color printing can be created from a high-resolution pdf file. Resolution must be at least 300dpi at actual size. (For poster-size prints, 150dpi at actual size will suffice). For jobs with more than one pms color, the only formats that will work are Adobe Illustrator (.ai or .eps), Quark Express, or Adobe In Design. These files must be color-separated so that the printer knows which items are assigned which colors. For jobs created in either Quark or In Design, remember to include all fonts and links used. As a rule, don’t use Photoshop, Corel Draw, or Microsoft Publisher, for any typesetting.

With all of your newfound knowledge – your next printing project should be far less stressful. Keep in mind that your printer is a valuable source of knowledge and will often have good suggestions about how your job will come out best. Good luck!

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