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Color: What’s the difference? CMYK vs. PMS

Marci Whitman


Marci Whitman

Estimated Reading Time

2 minutes


When it comes to printing there are several things you need to consider. One of which is the process of printing. Your printer may ask you how many colors?  CMYK (4-Color Process) or PMS? If you aren’t familiar, these questions will leave you slumped in your chair spinning.

The difference between CMYK and PMS can be very confusing and technical. I use this analogy to try and explain it:

Let’s say you go to Home Depot to buy paint. You’ve looked at all the color swatches and have found the perfect one. So, you take it up to the counter and they get a can of white paint. From there they take the swatch and reference a master color book that tells them how much or how many drops of blue, yellow, black, etc., will make the color you selected. You are getting an exact match to the swatch.

This is an example of PMS colors.

Now for CMYK.

If you have a laser printer in the office you can follow along with this one. Most lasers have a different drum, color stick or unit inside.

CMYK is the use of cyan, magenta, yellow and black to make up the color you want. It’s not as precise as PMS. CMYK takes a mix of the colors listed previously to arrive at the color. Typically, you’ll get a pretty close match to the color but there is some difference.

I’ll also share a more technical explanation as listed on an industry site:

CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black)
In four-color process (CMYK) printing, primary colors (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black) are mixed together to produce most of the colors that you see in normal magazines and color books. While there are six-color color spaces, these are much less common and are used for specific printing techniques.

CYMK is what the vast majority of commercial printers do, although there is a wide range of options. Images and artwork targeted for reproduction in a CMYK color space must be properly formulated to print correctly. If you’ve had the misfortune of trying to get an accurate print from an RGB image, you’ve just had a glimpse into the technical realm of 4CP (four color process) printing. To further confuse the issue, printers will often refer to their presses as 4, 5, or 6 color presses. While this makes sense to print designers, it is often lost on other customers. These numbers refer to the maximum numbers of colors that can be run in a single pass. For example, a tri-fold brochure could be designed to be printed in CMYK, plus a spot varnish, plus a metallic spot color. This ‘job’ is known as a six-color job since there are six colors of inks that will be run in a single pass.

PMS (Pantone Matching System)
Spot colors, also known as PMS colors, and officially as Pantone Matching System colors. Are specific color formulas that will reproduce accurately in print. Instead of simulating colors by combining primary colors, spot (PMS) colors are pre-mixed with existing and published color formulas. Because of this, you are nearly guaranteed that your PMS 186 from one printer will be matched by a PMS 186 from another printer. Better yet, often these PMS colors are pre-mixed by the ink factory, leaving even less to chance. “Spot” colors refer to the actual printing process by which they are applied.

There can be a substantial price difference between both options and you’ll want to adhere to your company/organizations branding guidelines. If accuracy in color is important then hands down—go PMS.

Marci Whitman