Pantone 2.0: After 45 Years, the Sequel to PMS

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On September 5, 2007, Pantone announced an entirely new spot-color-matching system, complete with new swatch books and a new numbering system. The company was quick to say that it is not replacing the current PMS products, but one look at the new Pantone Goe cube (available October 1) and you just know it will render the current system obsolete in a relatively short time. Once everyone gets over the number changes, the new system is a clear improvement. Plus, that cube (Figure 1) will look terrific in the photos of hot design studios featured in Communication Arts magazine.

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Figure 1. The new Pantone Goe system introduces new colors, new numbers, and a new plastic cube package. This configuration, which includes every bell and whistle, sells for $499.

The only question is, how long will it take designers, printers, and ink vendors to cut Pantone a $499 check?

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same
Designers will probably love the new Goe system. It comes with several improved tools and a few new ones that make specifying and experimenting with color and color palettes easier. Clearly, Pantone spoke to a lot of customers -- many of the improvements seem obvious, in a good way. (Goe, by the way, is a made-up name, such as "Screaming Yellow Zonkers" or "Prius." It doesn't stand for anything.)

Although Pantone did a good job modernizing its propriety system of specifying colors, the company is sticking with its "pure-spot-color" strategy, wherein every color is made by mixing proprietary ink formulas and applying them as flat colors. Matching the new Goe colors in CMYK printing may be slightly easier than before, but plenty of swatches still reproduce only as spot colors. (Probably more than the current 50%, but Pantone hasn't released a number.) And that's just fine with Pantone, of course, since the only way for a printer to match a Pantone-numbered color is to use Pantone-licensed inks and mix them to Pantone specifications. It may be a well-deserved lock, but it's a lock nonetheless.

I didn't really expect any other strategy. Designers rejected alternate color-matching schemes, such as TrueMatch, even when they made more sense for the bulk of printed work. There's something very seductive about a Pantone color swatch book. You can't achieve those rich colors (and $499 price tags) using various tints of CMY&K. And I'm sure Pantone will do the sort of conversion books everyone defaults to when budgets restrain and they reluctantly settle for less than 6-color printing on #1 coated stock.

For some reason, the design world has accepted that color matching is impossible most of the time. I was a little sorry to hear that, according to Pantone, designers' number-one request was "more colors," not "more colors that will look the same no matter where I see them." What's the point of having "Target Red" or "Subway Yellow" if the majority of time people see a rough approximation? I guess it looks good on the annual report, at least -- but only if someone goes on the press check and holds up a swatch for comparison in a specially designed color booth. The whole system is, and remains, more difficult than it need be.

I'm disappointed that the new Pantone colors are still validated by a subjective process: matching a swatch book that's been printed on a one-of-a-kind, patented printing press under highly controlled circumstances. The "correct" color is not based on a sound spectral strategy (known and reproducible by all), but rather an ink-mixing formula. Anyone who's made multiple batches of Tollhouse cookies knows that no matter how precisely you measure, they always come out a little different. Whatever Pantone chooses to print in its books is the reference. It's a set-up for frustration. But it's what Pantone does, and how it makes its money. And it seems to work well enough.

So let's briefly look at some of the key features of the new system and get over the fact that it doesn't solve the world's color problems. It's still pretty cool.

  • The number of unique colors has grown from 1,114 in the current base PMS books to 2,058 in Pantone Goe. More colors were added in the greens and blues, and the total color gamut has increased.
  • The Pantone numbering system, which was somewhat arbitrary before, is now based on a sensible hierarchy with specific and consistent meaning.
  • The colors are organized in more of a chromatic way, so it's easier to find similar colors and complementary colors.
  • Technical changes in how the base ink colors mix and apply on press should make it easier for printers to consistently match spot colors. And results should be more compatible with Aqueous and UV coatings.
  • The physical Goe "kit" includes self-adhesive swatches, palette-sharing cards, and a useful palette "playground" where designers can freely experiment with color swatches, then return them intact to the book. Think of Colorforms.
  • New Pantone software adds more ways to specify colors in applications and to create and save palettes. It includes a great feature that analyses images and pulls out dominant or random color palettes.
  • A Pantone-sponsored "My Palettes" Web site will be a place for designers to post and share color palettes publicly, or just between clients and colleagues.

Goe should stimulate swatch-book sales, the core of Pantone's business model. Obviously, the Goe system was in the works long before last month's purchase of Pantone by instrument-maker X-Rite, so it's a decent bet that the company sees good prospects for adoption. Pantone says its been working on this new product for four years, and it does seem well thought out.

Don't Tamper with Success?
But could the new Pantone Goe system be the color equivalent of New Coke? You can bet that's why it's taken Pantone so long to pull the trigger. Not only is it risky to fool with something that's become a world standard, but the company has been family-owned and tightly controlled from the beginning. Who's going to break the news to Dad (Lawrence Herbert) that the system he built an empire on and won numerous awards for needs a face-lift?

In 1962, Herbert bought the company where he was employed for $90,000, inheriting the Pantone name as it applied to a simple color-matching system for the cosmetics field. He shifted gears right away and focused the company on his new color-matching system for printing. Prior to Pantone, most printers and ink makers supplied their own color charts to customers, and these varied from company to company. It was relatively easy to match process colors, but there was no system for defining and matching spot colors.

Since the first PMS products, Pantone has expanded into other fields (fashion and plastics, for example), and come out with additional matching systems, such as metallic and Hexachrome. In addition to Lawrence Herbert, several Herbert family members are actively involved in the business, and over the years the company has vigorously protected its patents and intellectual property. The company hasn't taken huge risks, but it has been consistent in upholding a standard that the design community obviously respects.

Pantone prints the Goe books on a one-of-a-kind press manufactured by German press maker KBA. It prints 36 colors in each pass, and every color in a Pantone swatch book is applied with a different ink. You can imagine how long it takes to make these books, and you can appreciate why mere mortal printers have a difficult time matching such highly controlled examples.

By carefully positioning the Goe system as "not a replacement for" and something that simply "adds a whole new dimension to" the existing PMS library, Pantone lessens the risk of this endeavor. But in extolling some of the virtues of the new system, even Pantone can't help sounding like it's pointing out the weaknesses of the existing model.

More Colors. Less Ink.
The current Pantone Matching System consists of 1,114 colors (not counting metallic, Hexachrome, and other specialty products), which are produced by mixing 13 base colors of ink (as chosen and licensed by Pantone) plus black and transparent white. Several ink manufacturers license and sell Pantone base colored inks. Some printers stock and mix their own colors, while others order them pre-mixed from an ink supplier. The whole system is akin to those mixing carousels at your local paint store -- one squirt of this and two squirts of that added to the right base and out comes "Misty Pueblo Sunset." Anyone who has ever painted a room will also understand why it's so hard to match a PMS color from swatch to swatch, printer to printer, press to press, paper to paper, and climate to climate.

Pantone expanded the system's colors over time. That's why the current books' layout doesn't make sense -- the numbering scheme didn't allow new blues, for example, to be added sequentially with existing blues. But those 13 base colors can only be mixed so many ways to get distinctive results, and color science has come a long way in 45 years. Plus, certain coloring agents have become an environmental liability and are subject to price volatility. All of that meant it was time to re-evaluate (or as Pantone says, "re-validate") those original color choices.

The new Goe system uses fewer base colors (10), plus clear. Four of the colors are new and six are in the original set. The result is actually a wider color gamut that allows for more neutrals, blues, and greens. Pantone focused on these colors due to requests from designers -- corporate America, it seems, loves blue, and all the talk of going "green" has created demand for variations of that color. (If global warming continues, in another 45 years Pantone may have to re-formulate again, this time with more browns and scorched-earth colors.)

In addition to simplifying the number of base colors (which theoretically makes the printer's life easier), Pantone designed the new system so inks are applied in consistent thickness on press. In the past, you could achieve certain colors only by laying down thicker or thinner films of the ink. This created headaches for printers, as they had to adjust press cylinders differently depending on the color being printed. And when aqueous or other coatings were applied over the old Pantone colors, they could shift noticeably. The new system supposedly improves greatly on this problem.

Better Layout of Colors
The current Pantone Matching System is based around a "center" color on each page. This is the color made from mixing two or more of the 13 base colors. The three lighter colors above are created by adding increasing amounts of white, and the three darker colors below add more and more black. So when you fan out the book out, there isn't any sort of continuous spectral order that logically takes you from one set of hues to another.

In the Goe system, pages are laid out in a sequence with the darkest color of a family on the bottom, and lighter colors going up (as clear is added to the mix). Then, subsequent pages in that family (up to five) are the same color with increasing amounts of black added. So when you look at them as a fanned-out set, you see an original color in the lower left, which gets progressively lighter on the A axis and darker on the B axis (Figure 2). A family of colors in this case is no more than two of the base colors mixed together, then clear and black added to that. It's still very complicated, since not all families have the same number of pages (or color variations), and the amount of added clear or black isn't always the same for each family's variations.

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Figure 2. Goe swatch books are now printed on 100# coated text paper by a custom-made KBA press that applies 36 colors per pass.

At least the numbering system is consistent. The first digit represents the family (say, 5). The second digit indicates the page number of that family sequence (no less than 1 and no more than 5), and the last digit is the location of the color on that page (1-7). So the color 5-3-1 is in the fifth color family in the book, on the third page in the first (lightest) position. It makes some sense and is certainly an improvement over the current system. There are 165 families, though, so it'll be a while before a number like 148-5-3 means anything. But you might remember that 148-5-3 is lighter than 148-5-6.

Unfortunately, even when a new Goe color is the same as an old PMS color, there is no "formerly known as PMS 286" designation. However, sRGB formulas for each color are printed alongside the color.

Analog Still Trumps Digital When Choosing Colors
The success of Pantone's swatch books is tied to the fact that designers prefer to specify colors in an analog fashion, browsing through a swatch book, tearing out the little color cards and trying them in different physical arrangements. There's nothing like holding up a color chip next to a photograph or package design to get a feeling for whether a color will work.

The Goe product line adds a number of physical improvements to the swatch-book experience. The most basic product, the GoeGuide, is a familiar fan-out book of 294 pages, each with 7 colors as before. Along with each color are the unique color number, the ink-mixing formula, and the RGB value. This basic guide, which also includes the new software, is $129. Since paper use has changed, Pantone is now printing GoeGuides on 100# coated text paper, thinner than previous books but still heavy enough to avoid show through. There will not be an uncoated version when the product launches.

Then there's what Pantone calls GoeSticks, a two-binder set with six adhesive-backed color chips for each color. You can remove these and stick them to proposals, printer's guides, whatever. There's also a specially coated card called the Palette Playground, on which you can arrange the adhesive color stickers. The stickers peel off the Playground easily, so you can return them to the proper binder pages and use them again another time.

Pantone rounds off the package with 30 Palette Cards you can stick chips on and give to clients or printers. If you maintain some sort of physical archive, you can file the palette card there. The whole set, including the GoeGuide, the GoeSticks, the Palette Playground, the 30 Palette Cards, and the new myPantone Palette Software, is $499.

And About that Software
Pantone really had no choice but to include color-picking software with this new system. It's a reasonable bet that Adobe, Quark, and others will add support for Goe into future software revisions. But right now you'll have to launch the Pantone software, choose your colors, and then import them into the application at hand. Or, you can manually enter the sRGB values from the swatch book into any program's "new color" dialog box.

Given some of the features of myPantone Palette Software and its relatively small profile (it's a bit like a Mac OS X widget), using it won't be a burden and may even be an advantage (Figure 3). Pick a palette once, save it, then import it wherever you need it. Email it to a client. Post it to the Pantone Web site. The color formulas are all saved in sRGB, LAB or other standards, so once you create a palette it should be easily understood by just about any application that uses color.

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Figure 3. If you want to use the Goe system with your current applications, you'll need the myPantone Palette Software to select and save color palettes for now. However, it may prove much more than a temporary necessity, as it elevates palette selection to a dedicated, application-neutral process. Top, a typical color wheel, but with automatic selection of complimentary colors (depending on selected icon). The bottom screenshot shows Pantone digital swatches, also easy to contrast. The three colors under the color wheel icons represent Triadic selections. You can move any color to the bottom palette for saving.

The myPantone Palette Software has familiar color-pickers but adds a few new twists (Figure 4). You can use a familiar hue circle or square hue model and automatically display split complimentary, triadic, tetradic, monochromatic, analogous, or complimentary colors.

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Figure 4. You can save palettes and share them with others. If you like, add notes to each color swatch (top) and show your own or a client's logo. The bottom screenshot is a window showing saved palettes, which you can lock, print, and email.

You can also use a color blender that forms up to 64 individual gradient steps between any two colors. At all points when you choose a color, regardless of the method, you click and the closest Goe-numbered color pops up (Figure 5). But you don't have to specify Goe colors to use the myPantone Palette Software. (Pantone has said it will make the software available independently of the Goe product line.)

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Figure 5. The color blender feature creates up to 64 steps between two colors, which can then be selected and placed in the saved palette. Color selection can be independent of any specific Pantone system--at any point the selected colors can be mapped to the nearest Goe or PMS color.

You can also browse through the digital Goe color swatches (or other existing digital Pantone palettes) loaded in the software and choose one directly. An eyedropper tool lets you sample colors from the desktop, as well.

The Image Palette Builder is bound to be a popular tool (Figure 6). Simply import an image into a window in the Pantone software and choose how many colors you want sampled from it (up to 12). You can have it choose the most dominant colors, or ask it to choose random colors from the image. In either case, it pulls the colors out of the image into small swatches, then points with a line to exactly where in the image that color comes from. You can move the end point with your mouse to any area in the image and see the new resulting color. It's like having up to 12 eyedroppers live at the same time.

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Figure 6. One of the best new features of the palette software is the ability to automatically select colors from imported photographs, logos, or other artwork. You can pull up to 12 colors from one image and move the selection points to explore other areas of the image. The software drops selected colors into the bottom, saved palette. From there you can name, save, export, or trash the colors.

The compact design of the myPantone software is a slight liability when using the Image Palette Builder: Because the imported image is small, moving anchor points to highly specific spots is tricky.

You can drag and drop colors into your working palette from just about any of the various software windows, and then print, export, edit, or save the palettes. If you tend to choose colors onscreen, this is a welcome improvement over some existing color-pickers in design and image-editing software. Through the software, Pantone emphasizes the importance of having a calibrated monitor, which should be a given if you're choosing colors onscreen.

Is There an Elephant in the Room?
All this may seem fine and dandy, and it probably is. But what about the X-Rite acquisition? Will the Pantone family dynasty crumble when confronted with the spotlight of publicly traded stock? And doesn't X-Rite promote the Munsell Color System in other industries? Could X-Rite simply want the Pantone customer and licensee lists so it can force another solution down their throats? And what does a company that makes scientific instruments know about good design and the sensibilities of the graphic design community?

I'm not worried. X-Rite is a smart company that has grown to dominate the color measurement field and this acquisition seems logical. The price it paid for Pantone was high enough to conclude that X-Rite places a high value on the Pantone brand, but not so high that it doesn't see room for improvement and expansion. As we move closer to consistent and accurate onscreen color, the market for expensive color-matching books may not be as attractive as it once was.

The ideal business for X-Rite is to control color matching from the specifying stage (where Pantone is strong) through the measurement stage (which X-Rite controls even more after purchasing competitor Gretag-Macbeth a few years ago). Help people pick colors that are difficult to match, then sell them the equipment they need to help match them. Brilliant!

Of course it's not that simple, or sinister. I suspect you'll see Pantone run somewhat independently for a while, at least until the Herbert family cashes out and moves on (which usually happens sooner rather than later in these situations). Pantone has a lot of industry pros on board, so it can run well regardless of family dynamics. Because X-Rite tends to move fast, most likely it will immediately look for ways to expand the Pantone brand into other industries. The quest for a "universal" color system that works as well coloring paint and shoelaces as it does for printing a brochure or stamping out a new toy is consistent with X-Rite's strategy. When the company acquired Gretag-Macbeth it inherited a proposed universal color file format called CxF. X-Rite plays in a lot more places than Pantone does -- they even make devices your dentist uses to measure the brightness of your teeth. Would you like your new crown to be Pantone 45-3-4 or 45-3-7? If any company can bring the many ways of color specifying together, it's probably X-Rite.

I love family businesses. They are often secretive, usually volatile, and many don't survive generational changes. But in the end, if I had to pick who best to shepherd a world standard, I'd probably go with the big corporation. X-Rite could tarnish the Pantone brand, but I doubt it. If anything, X-Rite may apply additional color science to the various Pantone systems and make them even easier to repeat.

The Bottom Line
In the end, it's only a color-matching system, not a religion, though I have heard designers refer to their Pantone books in reverential tones. As technology continues to change, so will the need for choosing colors. Pantone doesn't own the colors, just the names. A 45-4-7 rose, by any other name, is still red.

As far as the value of the new Goe system, $499 may seem like a lot to pay for a couple of binders full of color swatches. But that's a moderate price for a professional piece of software these days, and I think most designers will tell you they use their Pantone books as much as they do most software. And what piece of software do you know of that is upgraded only every 45 years?

I know many of you will be sorry to discover the Pantone numbers you know by heart will soon mark your age, not your knowledge. You may also be less than pleased that now you can specify almost twice as many colors that won't reproduce accurately in CMYK or in most proofing systems.

But then there's that attractive plastic cube, all those beautiful colors, and something called a Palette Playground. Who can resist that? And wisely, Pantone left completely intact the most important feature of any color-matching system: "Blame it on the printer."

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