Aug 27 2008
I got a call from a printer friend of mine yesterday, asking me to help him unravel a color mystery. A job stopped just before the press started rolling when the pressman saw bright green on the approved proof, but blue ink earmarked for the job. Yikes! How could something be that far off?!
It took a bit of digging to get to the root of the problem: The missteps took place at several points in the job’s life.
As a preface to explaining how we cleared this up, I should mention that “Pantone” is synonymous with “spot color” in the minds of many. However, there are also Pantone swatch libraries that describe process builds, such as the PANTONE Process guide, the Color Bridge guides, and the PANTONE solid to process guides. While the lists of colors in these guides may resemble what you’re accustomed to seeing in the PANTONE solid coated/uncoated books or swatch palettes (which do refer to spot colors), it’s important to recognize the difference!
So, with that in mind, here’s how it happened:
Step 1: The customer picked a lime-ish green — PANTONE DS 302-2 C, to be exact — from the PANTONE Process Coated swatch library in InDesign. That word “Process” should have been a hint that this choice designates a CMYK build, and InDesign’s Swatch Options dialog bears this out (see below; click on image for larger view).
But apparently the customer (as so many folks do) equated “Pantone” with “spot,” and worried that the Color Type field still indicated “Process.” By switching the Color Mode to CMYK, he (or someone before him) then managed to change the “Color Type” to “Spot.”
Step 2: The customer service representative writing up the job saw the word “Pantone” and the number “302,” and left off the crucial “DS” and “-2″ designations. Again, this is probably due to the mindset “Pantone = spot,” and being accustomed to the common spot naming convention — “Pantone plus a number”. And printing out separated lasers or using InDesign’s Separation Preview would, of course, support this perception. So the job was written up as a two-color job: black plus Pantone 302. As evidence that the numbers mean nothing between Pantone systems, the process build “Pantone DS 302-2 C” is lime green, and the spot color “Pantone 302 C” is a nice Mediterranean blue. You can already hear the ominous music in the background, can’t you?
Step 3: The printer ordered Pantone 302 ink for the job.
Step 4: Even though the ink order requested “Pantone 302 green,” the ink supplier didn’t raise a red [PMS 485] flag despite the fact that they were shipping blue ink.
Step 5: Nobody in Prepress caught the discrepancy: the job ticket said “302,” the swatch in InDesign contained the digits “302,” so the job just kept on going. They generated proofs, sporting the festive green color. The customer, of course, approved the proofs. Nobody was paranoid enough to whip out the Pantone book to check (and, hey, I probably wouldn’t have, either. I stopped memorizing the PMS colors when there were, oh, about six colors. Way back in the last century.)
Step 6: As the press crew was getting ready to start the job, a pressman realized that the Pantone 302 blue ink specified for the job was nothing like the lime green on the proof, and the job came to a screeching halt, mercifully before any paper had rolled through the press. (see below)
It took some detective work to retrace the steps that resulted in this mess: because the Pantone DS swatches correctly manifest themselves as process builds in InDesign’s Swatches, the fact that it was a spot swatch was the first mystery. Once we deduced that the customer had manually wrestled with the Swatch Options to force the swatch to be spot, everything fell into place. Ultimately, the printer used a custom-mixed ink to match the designer’s specified CMYK mix.
The moral to this story? Well, there are two:
For the designer — It’s important to understand the difference between spot and process colors, and to be clear on the distinction between the swatch libraries and what they represent. If you intend to print a spot color, pick from the PANTONE Solid color book or swatch palette in your software. If no spot color does what you have in mind, request that the printer create a custom mixed ink matching a sample you provide (printout, fabric, your eye color, whatever). Be prepared to pay a little extra for that service.
And, by the way, the opposite holds true: don’t pick from the PANTONE Solid book/swatches if you intend to print as CMYK. Pick your color from the Color Bridge or Solid to Process book or swatches. Some spot colors simply cannot be matched with combinations of CMYK; it’s best to face this early in the job, or change the job specs to allow spot colors if you just must have that bright orange or navy blue (two hues that are notoriously impossible to render faithfully in CMYK).
For the printer — You just can’t be too paranoid: when you see mystery letters or numbers such as “DS” or “-2″ in an ink designation, don’t ignore them. Play detective; don’t assume.
And if you think you’re confused now, we could talk about the new Pantone Goe system, which gives you an entirely new system of designations to memorize. But we won’t. Not yet. Maybe later, after I’m well-rested.