CMYK vs Spot Colors: How to Choose?

rgb vs cmyk vs spot colors
RGB vs CMYK vs Spot Colors

Many times a day new customers ask us, what is a spot color? Or what is better CMYK or spot colors?

A spot color, or aka, Pantone color is a proprietary color space used in various industries in America and Europe, but mostly in graphic design, printing, and manufacturing.  Another word for pantone color is pms, which means the 'pantone matching system'.

In custom label printing it’s common for label printers to use pantone colors to ensure accuracy across all their product labels and tag printing.  Custom Labels and stock labels can both be printed in pantone colors. But this is really determined by the customer’s request, or artwork design.

Private labels can use a combination of cmyk and spot colors, for example the label graphics can be printed in four color process but the business logo might be printed in 2 spot colors. Remember that when looking at online labels that spot colors are not 100% accurate due to the limitations of an LCD computer screen. It is always best practice to pick colors from an official pantone book.

Pantone Colors, Book, & Color Finder

Pantone colors bookPantone Colors Book

These colors are usually very vibrant, and typically cannot be made with CMYK.

You can use the pantone color finder on the official website to view all color choices. Cust

If printing large volumes of labels and wholesale stickers you want to make sure that the color is the same on all the labels.

Printing labels and packaging with pantone colors ensures that even if all the printing is done with different printers, the result and shade of color will be the same. This way all your labels and packaging matches to be the same colors.

Many Seafood labels that we print use the pantone system so that they assure all their colors are the same, even if it was printed three months ago. This way customers in the store don’t even need to look at the seafood label, they just choose the same color label and design that they purchased last time.
Product labeling has become more important than ever. Consumer packaged goods and manufacturers have learned that a high-quality product label can help market and sell the merchandise.

A new trend has been smart labels, which can help extend interactions with a customer, even AFTER the point of sale. This label trend has become popular with many wine labels. Where the wine manufacturer can show the customer a video about how they make their wine, and where. All done by the customer simply scanning the label with their camera phone. The rest is automatic.

CMYK or Pantone Artwork?

Depending on how your artwork was created, it could be designed in CMYK, or it could be designed in pantone.

 If you didn’t tell your artist to design in pantone colors, they most likely designed your artwork in CMYK. This can become a problem if you want to print in pantone colors.  Because this means your artwork will need to be modified. Sometimes this can be a quick fix, sometimes this can take hours, or days if you have many different versions, and intricate artwork.

Label Color Consistency

Using Pantone colors ensures all your products and inventory is consistent with the same color. 

Every year there are more pantone colors released, but right now as of 2019 there are only 1,114 pantone colors.

Pantone color of the year 2019

Since the year 2000, The Pantone company started declaring ‘Color of the year”.  The pantone color of the year in 2019 was ‘Living Coral’.

19 years of pantone colors
19 years of Pantone Colors

The press release declaring Honeysuckle as the color of 2011 said "In times of stress, we need something to lift our spirits. Honeysuckle is a captivating, stimulating color that gets the adrenaline going – perfect to ward off the blues."

Spot Printing:

Below is an example of an apple printed in Spot colors: With ‘red 185’ and ‘green 356’ being the main spot colors. Black is just default black.

spot color apple
Spot color printed apple

Color 1= Black

Color 2 =  Spot color Red

Color 3 = Spot color Green 

CMYK Printing:

Below is an example of an apple printed in CMYK.

cmyk printing example
CMYK printing example

Color 1 = (K) Black

Color 2 = Magenta

Color 3 = Yellow

Color 4 = Blue

These 4 colors make CMYK.

Most of the worlds colors and graphics are printed with CMYK, which uses cyan, magenta, yellow and black to make all the colors on the material.

Spot Color Printing Example

Coca Cola Logo

Coca Cola Logo

For example, Coca-Cola uses a Pantone Red called ‘Coke Red’ for their logo and company color. This is the name the beverage company calls their color. This is not an official pantone color, because it is a custom mix. The closest default color to this might be pantone 185

How Many Pantone Colors Are there?

Most pantone numbers are labeled 1 to 1,114. But there are also many custom mixes that can be made for in between colors. For example the Coke-Cola logo above is a special red mix.

Chick fil lay pantone colors
Chick fil-a pantone colors

Chick Fil a also uses a red pantone color, but they use a standard pantone color red 186.

185 red vs 186 red
185 Red vs 186 Red

What is the difference between 185 and 186? Well, both are red but have different shades.

On the left is 185, on the right is 186.


Remember that pantone colors are not always 100% accurate on the computer screen, so it is best to choose the colors from a real Pantone Book the first time before you print.

This is because computer screens use the RGB color model, red, green, and blue to create the various colors.

Most label printers will print labels in CMYK by default unless you or your artwork is asking for spot colors.

Find a pantone color you like here on the official website, many label printers will choose a 3 digit pantone color for you by default, because the 4 digit colors are a little more expensive. Just a tip to keep in mind if you want to reduce printing costs.

But the truth is that at the end of the day, color perception is something very complex, and according to a recent John Hopkins Study on Color in 2015 there is still lots about color perception that we don’t understand. The conclusion of the study? Although our brain can distinguish between millions of colors, our brain will generalize and remember the ‘best’ version of a limited set of basic colors. Read more about the study by clicking the link above.