Colour confusion

Adobe’s decision to drop Pantone colour books has caused concern among users. So what does it mean for printers and what other options are there?

Late last year the design and colour printing sectors were thrown into confusion by a cryptic announcement that Adobe would remove the Pantone colour swatch sets (which it calls colour books) from its main design-for-print applications. In November, it said this would stop in March 2022. Since then there has been a lot of discussion on social media, but only vague ‘help page’ updates and even vaguer press statements from Adobe and Pantone. The March deadline came and went, but an update from Adobe on 28 June said that the phase-out will now begin on 16 August, just after this article goes to press. An earlier announcement had given 31 August. 

The official line is that anyone who wants to continue to use Pantone swatches within the widely used Adobe Creative Cloud applications, Photoshop, InDesign and Illustrator, will have to take out a subscription for Pantone’s Connect application. Here we examine what all that means, and offer some alternatives.

Why Pantone matters

Over the past 60 years Pantone has become the worldwide de facto standard for describing colour between creatives and printers. Anyone can use it and its wide availability, affordability and familiarity means anyone else will be able to reference the same colours. Pantone is not however, a standard. It is the name of a commercial company, originally a family business in the 1960s, but since 2007 it’s been owned by the colour measurement and management supplier X-Rite, itself owned by the Danaher Corporation since 2012, alongside packaging systems developer Esko and inkjet coding and marking maker Videojet. 

The Pantone Matching System has never been free, with most of the noticeable costs tied up in the printed sample swatch books of about 2,100 colours that are supposed to be replaced every 18 months or so. 

Originally Pantone colours that couldn’t be reproduced by CMYK could be printed by pre-mixed spot colours and Pantone sold a base set of inks and formula guides for mixing them to create the exact colour. As design and print went digital, Pantone moved with the times by licensing its colour books to software developers, with look-up tables in RIPs and DFEs to achieve the closest match from CMYK or the extended gamuts often used in digital printers. 

Software licensing costs have previously been carried by developers of design applications and colour management systems, so end-users didn’t notice them. 

Paying for Pantone Connect

Pantone now wants to sell its Pantone Connect for Creative Cloud app directly to Adobe’s enormous user base with a monthly charge, rather than as before just taking a global licensing fee from Adobe. 

It doesn’t say that, of course, it just talks about the Adobe built-in books being well out of date. Indeed the Pantone libraries are the older V2 set and haven’t been updated since 2005 (why is an interesting question) so any colours Pantone has issued since then aren’t in there. Pantone also has a habit of changing the definitions of existing colours while keeping the original reference numbers, so more up-to-date swatch books and conversion systems (such as look-up tables in RIPs) may give different results than expected. 

Until recently Pantone sold an app called Pantone Color Manager for $35 (£28) which among other things could be used to update the Adobe CC colour books with current spec V4 .ACB files. Buying one of the printed swatch books also gave you a licence for this software. Pantone has now dropped this in favour of the rented Pantone Connect, which works differently.

In public, Pantone plugs its features more than its profits, saying Connect includes 15,000 colours across 12 Pantone libraries, with automatic updates. This is a considerable step up from the 2,100 or so Pantone Matching System solid colour sets for print, but a large proportion of these are not relevant to most printing applications, covering plastics, textiles and other industries. 

Users can create their own collections of colour swatches in Connect, store them in the cloud and export them as Adobe Swatch Exchange (.ASE) files for use inside the applications.

There’s a free version of Pantone Connect that provides the Colour Finder (the sets of swatches), Pick (a selection tool), and Measure (lets you use a mobile phone camera to measure real world colours). However, the free version doesn’t provide the device-independent LAB values for colours, which are needed for proper colour management. It’s not much use for printers. 

The full version of Pantone Connect is paid for directly by users on a monthly or yearly basis, so as with Adobe’s Creative Cloud if you stop paying, it stops working. On the face of it, Connect isn’t expensive: currently £5.99 if paid monthly or £42.99 for an annual subscription, per seat. Discounts of 5%-20% are available for ‘multi-seat’ subscriptions, with the top discount for 50-plus seats. Currently, if you buy a Pantone guide or chip set you can also receive a free month’s access, per item, using a code on the product. 

The full version provides a respectable tool set, not just a bunch of colour swatches. In particular it will display the nearest RGB/CMYK/Hex/LAB colour equivalents to Pantone colours or convert between Pantone colours in different libraries. There’s an Extract tool to select a colour from a digital file and display the nearest Pantone reference number. There are also features for creating sets of related or harmonious colours, sharing them and collaborating with other users. 

While there are more features than Adobe’s built-in libraries, using Connect also involves extra hassle and setting-up for busy users, as well as payment. Some users have been scathing about its features and bugs on social media; in February Pantone claimed it is still under development, though that hasn’t stopped it charging full whack for it. 

What’s going and staying? 

Adobe says that the 16 August phase-out will apply to the 2022 versions of Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign, so if you’re using earlier versions (on an older Mac OS for instance), the Pantone colour books may still work. 

It also said that three Pantone colour books will remain available in the 2022 versions: Pantone+ CMYK Coated; Pantone+ CMYK Uncoated; and Pantone+ Metallics Coated. These are useful up to a point, but don’t cover colours that are outside the CMYK gamut that can be matched adequately by either special inks or some extended gamut printers. As basic examples, you don’t get the popular Reflex Blue, Pantone Orange or Rubine Red. 

Existing files (native CC or PDF) that contain named Pantone colours from any library should keep working. However you won’t be able to edit the CC file by adding a new Pantone colour that isn’t already there. 

Andrew Bailles-Collins, former senior product manager at Enfocus, points out that if you have a PDF editor (such as Enfocus PitStop), it may be able to add new Pantone colours to an old file. 

The biggest loss will be the two solid colour sets of coated and uncoated papers, as these include Pantone’s widest range of colours for creatives to choose from, some of which need to be printed as individual spot colours, or by extended gamut process sets if the CMYK equivalent isn’t close enough. Also gone will be the Bridge Coated and Uncoated sets which convert 2,139 solid colours to the closest equivalents in CMYK, plus the pearlescent and Premium Metallics. 

Back up your colours

Colour consultants, including Paul Sheffield, owner and founder of The Missing Horse consultancy, pointed out some workarounds early on. He recommended a stopgap of copying the Pantone libraries from the Creative Cloud apps (they are files with the extension. ACB), storing them separately and then re-importing them after Adobe removes them when it updates Creative Cloud. On a Macintosh you’ll find them in the application folder, in the Presets folder, in a folder whose name can vary but it is typically Swatch Libraries. You’ll still have the old 2005 V2 colour set, but you’ll be no worse off than before. 

Sherfield does warn however, that Adobe may be able to nobble CC apps so they won’t accept the old Pantone library, though he thinks it’s unlikely as Adobe uses .ACB files for its non-Pantone libraries too.

Another alternative is to go into your personalised swatch collections and export any groups of Pantone colours you’re likely to need as Adobe Swatch Exchange (.ASE) files, which can then be easily re-imported when needed.

If you’re reading this after 16 August and haven’t already taken backups, it might be too late, so you may need to find a friend who’s got them. 

Getting Pantone without Adobe

You can access the latest Pantone libraries in CorelDraw, QuarkXPress and the Serif Affinity suite (as covered in Printweek April/May 2022). These are the main design-for-print applications beyond Adobe, and the three Affinity programs in particular are excellent value at £47.99 each for perpetual licenses. 

You don’t need Pantone Connect for any of these, though Pantone may decide otherwise in future. However, Creative Suite dominates the professional design and print markets so completely that the others only count as also-rans, with a fraction of the worldwide user base that Adobe commands. 

Make your own colours

If you have a printed Pantone swatch book, even without the official Pantone sets in Creative Cloud there’s nothing to stop you choosing a colour, then creating a brand-new colour swatch in the Adobe application and giving it exactly the same name or number as the printed swatch. You’ll have to guess at the ‘alternate colour’ LAB values used for on-screen previewing, though Sherfield points out that Serif Software’s Affinity Publisher layout program incorporates the current Pantone V4 books and it’s easy to read off individual LAB values from its colour picker menu. At only £47.99 it may be a cheap way to get hold of these colour values. 

If you have a modern spectrophotometer (such as the affordable X-Rite i1 Pro or upmarket Exact, or the Techkon and Barbieri ranges) it will be able not only to read precise colour values with LAB alternates off the printed swatch books, but it will let you use the M1 setting that is most relevant to real-world printing conditions. 

Pantone’s own LAB values in software, Sherfield points out, use M2, which cuts out the effect of optical brighteners in the paper coating but may not match M1 measurements. You can set modern spectrophotometers for M2 to get the same parameters as Pantone’s own, but older ones may not do it, Sherfield says.

Any Pantone-capable RIP or DFE will be able to detect and separate Pantone-labelled/numbered colours in files, using their built-in look-up tables. You can build up your own collections of such colours and export them from Adobe apps as Adobe Swatch Exchange (.ASE) files, which can be sent to other users and imported. Incidentally, CorelDraw can also import .ASE swatches. Pantone copyrights its names and numbers so you can’t actually sell DIY colours that use these. 

Alternative colour models

Adobe gives you a wide choice of colour models for defining the alternate colour in its Creative Cloud print apps – RGB, CMYK, LAB, HSB and its range of commercial models including Pantone, DIC, Focoltone, HKS, Toyo and Trumatch. 

The built-in colour models can also be used for choosing colours for use in the artwork, just like Pantone can be. DIC and Toyo are largely confined to Japanese users and markets. All the others are oriented towards printable CMYK, which is looking a bit outdated in a world of wider gamut inksets. 

HKS offers printed swatch books for 3,520 spot colours, plus their nearest CMYK equivalents. These can be ordered from Trumatch offers a swatch book you can order ( but is also for CMYK only. Focoltone is a CMYK system, though it supports metallic inks too. We haven’t been able to find a current source of Focoltone swatch books. 

In April, the German ink maker Saueressig e.Gen announced c.Cloud, this time accessing colour libraries in the Cloud, via plug-ins for Illustrator and Photoshop. It says users can set up colour libraries based on their own existing sets plus new ones using freely available spectral data (giving the freieFarbe CIELAB HLC Colour Atlas as an example – see Libraries can be shared with others via the Cloud. The system can use the Colibri colour management solution from Swiss company MatchMyColor. 

Make your own

While Pantone Connect may eventually become accepted as a necessary extra expense, the controversy has led some to look again at the alternatives. In April the Ghent Workgroup, an independent organisation comprising developers, printers and academics, ran an 80-minute online webinar called ‘Pantone Colours in Adobe Applications – What are my options?’ It was presented by Andrew Bailles-Collins from Ultimate Technographics and David Van Driessche from Four Pees, who both used to work for PDF preflight and workflow specialist Enfocus. 

In the webinar they outlined how colour models in general ought to work and how to make sure they actually do. This can be listened to online at

Van Driessche explained that one of the most important aspects for such a defined colour is the ‘alternate colour’, which describes the colour value, whether it’s a CMYK mix, or from a commercial colour model set, or one of your own. For separate spot inks the only real function of the alternate is to control on-screen preview colour during design and approvals processes. However, if you have a printer or proofer that doesn’t have Pantone-licensed look-up tables, then the RIP uses the alternate colour values to calculate the separations. 

Some printers already make up their own colour sets without Pantone, though generally on a much smaller scale and typically for special effects such as exotic inks (say pearlescent/fluorescent) or tints over foil. They may also make swatch books for their own digital (or even offset) presses that have extended colour gamuts. However, consider the confusion in a design studio that works with 10 different printers, each supplying their own non-standard colour sets. 

Turning it around, designers for brand owners are reportedly increasingly not specifying Pantone colours, but LAB values. This solves some of the issues of Pantone (in particular Adobe using older versions) but introduces others – without a printed target swatch to try and match, a press operator has to “go by the numbers” and hope that the internal colour management is up to scratch. Also, given that designers seemingly have a love of colours that can’t be made out of CMYK, how can a special ink be specified or ordered? One answer is CxF. 

CxF for full information

The GWG webinar touched on CxF, which is shaping up as a long-term non-proprietary way to transfer colour information. The Color eXchange Format was originally devised by GretagMacbeth in 2000 and carried on by X-Rite after its 2006 merger. 

CxF defines the spectral values of the colour, so it can be read from real life objects and sample swatches with a spectrophotometer and also embeds other useful information that’s missing from using pure LAB values and alternate colour data. It means all aspects of a colour can be recorded and transferred as an XML schema, even when the application and communication features required are unknown. These include names, colour values, physical attributes such as spectral tints and overprint behaviours, measurement conditions, tolerances and profiles, with scope for future expansion. CxF data can also be used by ink makers to formulate special colour mixes. In principle it removes the need for printers to have printed swatch books as targets that match those used by the creative. 

Since 2015 CxF has been an ISO standard (ISO 17972) with four documents: CxF3 (ISO 17972-1) which provides pre-press digital data exchange and verification for four-colour process printing; CxF/X2 (ISO 17972-2) which defines the creation of scanner target data; CxF/X3 (ISO 17972-3) which defines output printer target data; and CxF/X4 (ISO 17972-4) which defines spot colour characterisation data.

PDF/X-4 supports CxF and colours defined that way can be picked up by many modern Rips and DFEs. Getting it in there is a little complicated, however. Although X-Rite devised CxF, its sister company Pantone doesn’t give CxF information in Pantone Color Manager or Connect, and Adobe doesn’t support it as standard in Creative Cloud, though it does in its new APPE 6 Rip/DFEs. 

However, the colour management specialists CGS Oris and GMG Color both produce software that does support CxF and can incorporate the information in PDFs. X-Rite’s own spectrophotometer software can also describe measured colours as CxF.

CGS’s CXF Tools and CXF Cloud allow users to define brand colours as CxF and embed them with metadata in PDF/X-4 files. Functions include creating new colours or editing existing ones as CxF, viewing the CxF data, exporting .ASE data (for use by Adobe, Corel etc apps), and storing CxF/X-4 libraries in CXF Cloud for sharing with others (via permission controls). 

GMG’s ColorPlugin works within Photoshop to expand its spot colour controls, including creating CxF data, soft proof previews, and working with profiles created in the GMG colour management and proofing products ColorServer, InkOptimizer or OpenColor.

Timely information overdue

Adobe and Pantone may have their reasons, but their communications have been unforgivably vague. In February, Pantone issued this notice: “Together, Adobe and Pantone are working to provide users with timely information for a smooth transition towards a revised Pantone colour workflow in the coming months. Please stay tuned for updates.” Well, the switch-off deadline has come and the customers are still waiting. 

Even though losing built-in Pantone from Adobe isn’t the end of the world, it does mean extra time and expense for creatives and printers. All the alternatives are more fiddly than what was there before. 

It seems that Pantone simply expects creatives and printers will knuckle under and pay for Pantone Connect for an easy life, even if they grumble about it. 


Update, 1 November 2022: since this article was published Pantone has dramatically increased the price of Connect