What Is Color Matching In Printing, And How Does It Work?

🎨 Let’s dive into color matching and how it can affect your printing quality!

Getting the colours right is a fundamental part of your branding and packaging experience.

However, translating colours to the physical packaging can often be challenging for designers, and getting an exact match can be difficult.

What’s on the screen can greatly differ from the physical product, and even if you choose colours strategically, it can be stressful when you see the colors just don’t match the way they should.

This article will explore the colour matching process in more detail, the different types of shades, and other factors that can lead to a less-than-perfect colour match.

What is Color Matching?

The process of colour matching is to find and approve colours that match on-screen and off-screen.

This ensures that colours that you see on-screen are accurate once the design is printed.

The process entails looking at the hue, saturation, and brightness of the colours on-screen and making sure they are reflective of what you will see when you receive the final product.

Example of color matching
Source: Medium

So how do you actually match up colours?

The design industry standard is to use the Pantone Matching System.

The benefit of this is that the colors are standardized and used globally, so there is no worry or  any confusion and errors.

The colours can be matched to customer preferences and needs for both digital and screen printing.

The PMS colours that you see will then have to be matched to a computer equivalent, CMYK, for accuracy.

We’ll first look at the Pantone Colour Matching System in more detail before moving on to CMYK.


The Pantone Colour Matching System

The Pantone Colour Matching system has become a global standard in design that is operated by Pantone Inc.

Pantone has been able to establish themselves in this realm through their success in naming in pretty much all the different tones of colour (perhaps excluding a few yet to be discovered!).

The range and depth of colours available have made it easier for the global industry to adopt this system.

Colour is notoriously difficult, especially with different monitors, brightnesses, settings, etc.

example of pantone colors
Source: Pantone

Having one system in place, such as Pantone, can help eliminate a lot of confusion and create a smoother design process.

The process relies on a numbering system as a code for specific colours.

It is used for design, manufacturing, fabric, and a multitude of applications thanks to its wide catalog of colors and easy standardized system.

We’ll now look at the role of CMYK in the design process.

Learn more about the Pantone Color Matching system. (BACKGROUND #f8f8f8)


During the design process, you might get asked whether the colours you have provided are CMYK or PMS.

As designers, we know this is a standard question, but we see a lot of confusion from business owners who don’t quite know the details, so we thought we’d demystify this question!

When you’re printing packaging and logos, the colours you are thinking might not be the colours the designers have in mind.

For example, you could provide a PMS colour that you have picked, but if it is not specified that it’s chosen from the PMS system, the designers could try to use the CMYK equivalent.

That is why it’s vital to get this question established from the start before printing anything!

By specifying, designers will know whether that is the colour they can use (if CMYK) or if Pantone, they will find the equivalent.

But what can affect the colour matching process?

What Affects Matching Colors?

Many factors can affect colour matching, particularly if there is no system such as CMYK or PMS in place.

Screen printing versus digital material, and lighting can all affect getting a perfect match.

Brighter versus dimmer lights can change how the eye perceives colour in person, and different screen settings and office lightings can affect how the colour is perceived on a computer or phone.

We’ll now explore the colour matching process in more detail so you can get the perfect shade for your packaging!

The Color Matching Process

As we mentioned earlier, various factors can impact colour matching in processes such as screen printing.

Example of color being different on screen
Source: Behance

Here are a few things to look out for as they may affect colour matching:

  • screen mesh count
  • mesh type
  • squeegee sharpness
  • The angle and pressured
  • The curing process

However, the benefit of screen printing and why it’s used so widely is that you can get a broader range of colours compared to digital – particularly fluorescents, metallics, and chrome.

CMYK, on the other hand, can only produce colours from the ‘four colour process,’ which includes cyan, magenta, yellow and black.

This makes getting specific colours harder, and they may not be as bright or intense comparatively.

There will also be differences in the shade if you go for coated (i.e., glossy) or uncoated materials.

The Material

The material you choose for your packaging can change how the colour appears.

Why is this?

Because most of the materials used for graphic overlays and labels are made of

Polycarbonate or Polyester.

Example of printing on different material
Source: The Dieline

Your print (and thereby your colour) will either be 1st surface or 2nd surface.

If it is 1st surface, that means the ink will be applied to the top surface of the substrate, and it will be readable when looked at from the top.

The 2nd surface is when the ink is applied to the backside of the material. The image will be mirrored, and when the sheet is flipped, the image will be visible and protected by the material used.

If you opt for a 1st surface print, the ink colour will only impact the material colour itself.

You will also need to consider whether an overlaminate needs to be applied to protect the ink or the appearance.

For example, if you use a matte overlaminate to black ink, the resulting effect will make it look dark gray rather than black.

If you decide to go for a 2nd surface print, the material you choose will make a big difference to the end result.

Matte, textured, and gloss material all have an impact.

If you opt for something matte or textured, the light diffusion may make the shade appear less bright than gloss.

Even if a material is transparent or clear, it still has a natural colour that will need to be taken into account during the matching process.

The Lighting

The other consideration for colour matching? Lighting.

Colour is a property of light, and we see some shades because they are absorbed, and others are reflected.

Sometimes, this means that the colour matches exactly the way we want in one light while looking vastly different in another light (think indoors vs. outdoors and how the light changes the colour of what you are looking at).

Digital printing can also impact the way colour is perceived since the ink may drop down differently in digital printers and may reflect light in a way where they look low quality.

So when trying to colour match, try to hold the shades in different lighting and focus on the one you know will be most common.

Example of lighting for printing
Source: Behance

This will help you pick a more accurate shade to what others see when they receive your packaging and in turn create a successful unboxing experience.

When designing your custom printed packaging, you can create an amazing impression using your branding elements to create an exceptional experience for customers.

Packaging is the customer’s first impression of your brand in many ways, and with the right colours and design, you have a chance to wow your customers right from the start!

Looking for more advice? Get in contact with our packaging experts to help make the right decisions for your business!