What is the Pantone Matching System?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 09 October 2019
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The Pantone Matching System is a proprietary color matching system which was introduced by the Pantone Corporation in 1963. It is used by many printers and graphic artists to deliver reliable, stable colors to the consumer. There are certain drawbacks to the Pantone Matching System, but for some applications it is the color matching method of first choice. It is used all over the world to communicate color.

The Pantone Matching System standardizes colors. Many graphic designers struggle with the disparity between colors on the computer screen or in swatch samples and final printed products. In some cases, the color difference may be marginal, but in others an entire print run would need to be halted so that the color could be corrected. This is frustrating and costly. The Pantone Matching System is designed to eliminate some of these difficulties.

The Pantone Matching System mixes cyan, magenta, yellow, and key, or black, together to create a single color. Graphic designers have a swatch book of thousands of Pantone colors to choose from. Each color has a specific number which a printer can look up to determine how the inks should be mixed. In this way, the graphic designer can ensure that the color of his or her choice is reproduced in the finished product.


Some colors from the Pantone Matching System are world famous. Tiffany Blue, for example, is also known as Pantone Color 1837. The distinctive blue color is trademarked by Tiffany's. Several nations including Scotland have also used the Pantone Matching System to dictate the precise color of their national flags and military uniforms.

The primary drawback to the Pantone Matching System is that it only works for spot colors. The Pantone company is working on a similar system for process colors, but is finding it difficult. Process colors are far cheaper to produce than spot colors. Process printing involves making four passes with a press to lay down four separate colors of ink. Each ink adheres to a different print plate, producing a color image when the fourth pass is done.

Because spot colors are mixed to specification, they are costly to make, and only practical when a project is being printed in two to three colors. Applications for spot color include invitations to events and other text-oriented print projects, or monochrome printing. Spot color is not practical for four color brochures and other print projects with a multiplicity of colors.

The Pantone Matching System also does not work for red, green, blue color systems, as found on the Internet. The Pantone company is attempting to expand its color matching abilities, and is expected to release a red, green, blue color matching system in the early twenty first century. Pantone has also expanded its color matching expertise to encompass house paint, textiles, fashion, and industrial design.


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