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Pms Color Matching - What Is It And Where Did It Come From?

By: Mark J. Trumper

If you've never worked directly with graphic designers, corporate marketing departments, or something of the like you might not have even heard of the Pantone Matching System, also known as the PMS Color Match System. This is a very useful system that universalizes shades of color to eliminate shade variations in a myriad of different industries.

Imagine trying to order logoed letterhead for your company. You've chosen a particular shade of, say, orange for your logo color. Your shade of orange is a vibrant, shocking shade of orange. When the letterhead gets to you the orange in it is more of a brown color, or even more of a yellow. What could have prevented this? The Pantone Matching System, that's what.

The Pantone Color Matching System allows you to communicate the exact color you require through a special numbering system. Each color is assigned a unique number. You tell your printer which orange you want and your letterhead shows up with your orange on it. Pretty smart, huh? Who thought of such a thing? How do they do it?

Lawrence Herbert thought of the idea back in 1963 when he bought the Pantone company, which used to manufacture cosmetics companies color cards. Herbert had this fantastic idea, which remains intellectual property of Pantone even today. Today Pantone is owned by X-Rite, Inc., who bought the company in 2007 for $180 million dollars. That's a pretty good bargain for such a revolutionary system. Seriously, in today's world where consistency in product is valued so highly, this system is obviously integral to maintaining color consistency.

So how do they do it? Sure, it's easy to find a bunch of colors and slap a number on them, tell people that you have to use certain numbers for certain colors, but how do they actually make it work? What is the system behind the system that makes this color matching system work?

To understand, first you have to start with the basics. The CMYK process is a good place to start. Open up a big network color printer and you'll see four cartridges - a black one, a cyan one (it looks blue), a yellow one and a magenta one. Most printing happens through the CMYK process, meaning that lots of colors can be produced in one of these machines. That's not how Pantone Color Matching works, because that is too inexact. One printer might be low on Cyan, or need to be serviced because it's putting out too much Magenta. The combination of these four shades can't make every color under the sun, so what do you do with colors that can't be printed on these standard color printers?

You use the Pantone Color Matching System. The colors within the system are created through a mixture of 15 total base pigments, and the creation of a given spot color is specified through the system. If you use the Pantone Color Matching System you are given the tools you need to make any of their colors. Now, Pantone is a company that is with the times, so in a pinch you could pick one of their colors that is compatible with the CMYK process. That way you can print it out yourself, or go to Kinko's or something, but it won't be perfect all the time. The only way to be sure that you're using true Pantone colors is to go through an authorized distributor or to become one yourself.

Luckily, lots of companies are hip to this very logical and practical system, and you can find PMS matched labels, plastic goods, and even T-shirts that will fit with your logo and your company's brand. Lots of organizations are using the system too, including the US Army, many different countries (for their flags), and pretty much every design company you can ever hope to come into contact with.

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