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How Digital Printers Match Real-world Colors

How Digital Printers Match Real-world Colors

YellowDog converts colors from Pantone to CMYK and everything in between.

As a print and design studio, our job at YellowDog is to keep brands coherent — online and offline. So how do we make sure brand colors stay true in both their print and digital form? Here’s a look inside our color converting system that takes colors from PMS (Pantone) to CMYK. We’ll match colors for our brand clients — not just because we love them, but also because we have a lot of machinery, technology, patience, and a good eye for it by now.

YellowDog Design, Print and MarketingHere’s the usual scenario: a client will come to us and say “our brand color is PMS 375 and we need everything to match!”

Well…that poses a bit of a problem when it comes to digital printing because, unlike old-school offset printing, we can’t just create every color in existence. All colors done through our digital printers have to use only the four basic toners: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black (a.k.a. CMYK).

If you look at PMS 375 on the Pantone swatch pictured above, you can see that in order to create that color, you need to use Pantone Yellow and Pantone Green. “What the heck are those?” asks the client.

Well, Pantone was created back in 1962 with offset printers in mind — printers who actually mix physical ink together to create the colors. For example. see how to make the purple Pantone below.

color matching

You can see on this Pantone swatch the ratio breakdown of each ink required to get that specific color: 75% Yellow and 25% Green. This is all very helpful for those kinds of printers. But YellowDog doesn’t use offset printers. Rather, our machinery is entirely digital, and therefore we need to try and create this color using Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black only. “Green” doesn’t exist to us.

Both our principal small-format printers, a Xerox Irridesse and a Xerox 3100, have special software built into the servers that converts Pantone colors to CMYK. It comes loaded with ALL the libraries, but we just use the “Coated” or “Uncoated” Pantone libraries.

color matching digital printer

Here you can also see the breakdown percentage of each of the 4 CMYK colors required to make that Pantone.

What we do on the print production floor is select the required Pantone and then we just tweak the values ever so slightly until we come up with a print of the Pantone that most closely matches the Pantone book.

color matching

Here you can see that the software has determined that the closest values to this Pantone are 38.4% Cyan, 0.4% Magenta, 95.3% Yellow and 0% Black. Sometimes if it is a difficult color to match (like this one) it may take a long time because we look at each printout and say “Oh it looks like it needs just a touch more Magenta”. We print that out and go “Oh nope! That was too much! Let’s take the Magenta down a bit.” Then we print that one out and go “Oh, now I need to compensate with a little more Cyan”… and it can go on and on.

Lucky for us, the production team has been doing this for a long time now and we are pretty good at eyeballing the values that we think will be the best.

We can also keep consistent colors with clients who don’t necessarily have a Pantone color they want to match every time but just want their “red” to match each time.

In the printer server library this is called “substitute colors”. We also create “folders” for each client that needs that special attention for their colors. For example, below you can see our Client Iron Woman Construction’s colors.

digital color matching

Here we just enter the value that the particular color is in the PDF and tweak it just like the Pantones. Note: this ONLY works with graphics and text and vector-based objects.. We CANNOT change any of these values with static images such as a jpeg.

Do you have a print project that needs color matching from Pantone to digital? Now you know how it works and who does it best. That would be us here at YellowDog.

Sarah McCann

Sarah McCann

Print Production Manager at YellowDog
Sarah found her way to Denver all the way from Ontario, Canada. When she’s not on the YellowDog production floor doing small format print magic, she likes creating her own cookbooks and teasing her cat Tumbles.