For as long as I can remember, designing a logo meant choosing specific colors from the Pantone Matching System (PMS). These colors are known as PMS colors. They're used in offset printing jobs when you print something like a 1-color, 2-color or, 3-color job. Printing those kinds of jobs used to be very common, particularly for identity collateral like business cards or letterhead. 

If something is printed as a 4-color job (CMYK) whether with a traditional offset printer or with a digital printing system, PMS colors are typically not used (sometimes they are though, turning the print job into a 5- or 6-color job, but I digress).

Choosing a couple of PMS colors for a logo design and branding project is part and parcel of a designer's job. Or at least it used to be. 

With offset printing becoming less expensive and digital printing becoming a viable and inexpensive option, businesses and their designers often choose to simply have their business cards or letterhead printed as a 4-color job even if they're just one or two colors. The reason is generally an economical one.

With all that in mind, the question is: should you choose PMS colors when designing a logo?

Yes... Maybe

One of the main reasons PMS colors are chosen in designing a logo is to ensure consistency when developing a brand. Consistency is crucial to keeping things cohesive and helping your customers make a quick connection with your brand regardless of medium. 

But again, technology has moved forward and the truth is, you can still achieve consistency without Pantone colors. They key is to make sure your company's colors have been defined in at least CMYK (for print) and RGB (for online/screen). 

Avoiding The Color Conversion Nightmare

When we create a logo for a client, we always provide it in various color ways. This helps them avoid the common mistake of using an RGB file in a document they create only to have it printed at a professional printer which will print in CMYK (or vice versa with web/online design). Every time this happens, the color will shift ever so slightly (and with some colors the shift is readily visible). And let's not forget the slight color shift you'll see from screen to screen. These shifts are enough to drive you bat sh** crazy.

Here’s the catch though – going from CMYK to Pantone or RGB to Pantone is difficult. It’s not impossible thanks to Adobe, but it’s difficult to get an exact match. With some colors, like certain shades of red, it’s impossible.

Things get even more complex when you consider that the gamut – the complete range of color – of RGB is greater than that of both CMYK and Pantone. And Pantone has a greater gamut than CMYK.

Color gamuts

(Photo credit)

Gamut alone is a great argument for why we should start with PMS colors for branding and logo design, though a very good argument could be made that starting with CMYK (the smallest color gamut of the three) would be better.

So What’s the Answer?

Are we splitting hairs here? Yeah, maybe a little bit. 

What we’ve found in our experience is that PMS colors aren’t 100% required when designing a logo unless there’s an expectation that the logo may end up getting printed with Pantone-specific inks. These days that’s unlikely – we’ve done that for clients only two or three times and in each case the printed pieces were very high-end and created for specific purposes.

At Block 81 at least, we’ll continue starting with PMS colors for logo design. If you don’t, that’s cool. Just make sure you start with CMYK and not RGB. You’ll thank us later.


Published on September 13, 2016