Using Swatches to Insure Desired Color Results in Printing

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The Problem

When designing for print, a common issue that has to be dealt with is the difference between the color on your computer display and on paper. Even if your monitor is calibrated correctly the match them as best as possible, your client’s will not be, and so a third “version” of the color comes into play. If you then print proofs for your client on any printer other than the one that will be used for the final job (which is often the case), more colors join the mix that won’t match the final piece.

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The Pantone Matching System

To deal with this problem, you can use the “Pantone Matching System,” or PMS. The PMS has an industry standard book of color swatches with reference numbers that you can give to the printer, who will then use ready-made inks that match these numbers to complete the job.

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The PMS Swatch Book

Swatch Book
Swatch Book.

The PMS swatch books come in many versions, made for different papers such as coated and matte. For this reason, it is important to talk to your printer first about what paper will be used, so you can refer to the proper book. The books are available for purchase directly from Pantone as well as on Amazon, other web sites, and in art stores. As the swatch book sets are expensive (especially the full reference library), you may want to start with the “Formula Guide” set, consisting of the coated, uncoated and matte swatch books, which are sufficient for most standard jobs. It is important to remember that books can “expire,” meaning they are no longer applicable to the current ink sets.

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Working with the Client

To get the full value out of your swatch books, meet with your client to discuss the colors that will be used in the project. Once you have an idea of the project design, you can discuss exact colors for backgrounds, type and other elements. Remember that the swatches are for determining solid colors, and do not help to insure that elements like photos (which can contain millions of colors) will print as desired. For this reason, among others, it’s a good idea to always get a proof from a printer before they finish the entire job.

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Applying the Selected Colors to Your Designs

Selecting a Swatch Library
Selecting a Swatch Library.

Once you have selected PMS colors, what do you do with them? For starters, you need to use the matching colors in your design projects. You do this by selecting the appropriate swatch library, and colors, in your graphics software.

  • In Photoshop: Open the swatches palette by clicking Window > Swatches. The standard swatch palette will be displayed. Click the small arrow on the top right of the swatches window, and you are presented with a long list of color libraries to choose from, include several Pantone collections. Select the set name that matches the swatch book you are using. Photoshop will ask you if you want to replace the current palette or add onto it (Append). Choose “OK” to replace the palette so you are only seeing your Pantone colors.

  • In Illustrator: The process is basically the same, except when you click the arrow to bring up the swatches list, you must first choose “Open Swatch Library” to see the full list of Pantone and other color libraries.

Once your Pantone swatches are displayed, you can see the reference numbers by rolling over each color swatch with your mouse. Now you can select the colors that you have already picked out in your books. This process might vary slightly depending on what version of Photoshop or Illustrator you are using. The swatch palettes are also available in most standard graphics software, so be sure to select the right palette for the job.

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Supply the Colors to Your Printer

Even though you have selected the appropriate colors in your design, it is important to let the printer know which colors are used where. You can do this by marking up a printed example of your design…simply label each PMS color with its reference number. Again, it’s a good idea to get a proof so you can approve the colors before the entire job is finished, which are much more likely to appear as you expected if you use the Pantone Matching System.


David Bann. “The All New Print Production Handbook.” Watson-Guptill Publications. 2006.

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Your Citation
Miller, Eric. "Using Swatches to Insure Desired Color Results in Printing." ThoughtCo, Aug. 4, 2016, Miller, Eric. (2016, August 4). Using Swatches to Insure Desired Color Results in Printing. Retrieved from Miller, Eric. "Using Swatches to Insure Desired Color Results in Printing." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 24, 2017).