Why Special Inks Are So Important for Packaging

By: Agustina de la Plaza

In packaging, color is a language. Quickly and efficiently, it communicates certain attributes about the product inside. Consumers “read” color much faster than words or shapes so they will find or choose the product they are looking for, first and foremost, by color or by color combination.

Often clients will ask me: “Why do we have to use special inks? Why can’t we just print CMYK?” If you’re a designer reading this, you’ve probably had to answer this question plenty of times.

I had an interesting conversation with a printer the other day. We were discussing the printing of a predominantly black label I had designed. I had chosen a specific Pantone for the black: PMS Black 6 C. The printer associate said that I had nothing to worry about, because they knew how to make “a real black.” He went on to say that the black I had chosen “was not very black” and that they could “fix it.” I had to explain that I wasn’t looking for a “real black”—that I wanted a specific tone of black, and for that reason I had chosen PMS Black 6 C. Nothing less, nothing more. But exactly that color because I wanted that tone to communicate quality and luxury.

Let’s explore all the reasons why using special inks is so important. Most of these reasons are highly technical, but we should keep in mind that the ultimate goal of using the right color it’s to communicate the right concept, attribute, brand or flavor.  

The Difference Between CMYK and PMS

Color Consistency

One of the issues with CMYK is that color tones will change from one print run to another; it’s inconsistent. This inconsistency can sometimes be slight and unnoticeable to the untrained eye, but often times can be a considerable difference. The change in color can affect brand recognition in these extreme cases. Consumers could also assume that the product has been on shelf for a long period of time and gotten “discolored” by age. This can damage brand perception and consumer trust.

Color Brightness

Another issue with CMYK is that it's difficult to achieve bright, sharp colors. Bright colors are essential if we want packaging to stand out amongst the competition. The reality is that when we print with CMYK, colors appear dull in comparison to what we could achieve with PMS colors.  

For packaging to communicate certain attributes like quality, freshness, energy, vitality or strength, we need color to be bright and vibrant for consumers to perceive that.

Good Registration for Sharpness

To explain knocking out and registration in a simple way, we can begin with the following statement:

A PMS color needs one plate, a CMYK color needs four plates.

Imagine we had to print packaging with a good amount of copy "knocking out" and chose to do this with CMYK. We would need the registration to be absolutely perfect or the copy would thin-out, and the worst part is that we would have no control over this. However, if we used PMS instead, knocking copy out wouldn’t be a problem—we only have one plate to run, no registration between colors necessary.

In the End, It’s Just Worth It

It’s widely thought that printing with PMS colors is more expensive than CMYK. This is not always true. We may have created a design that only needs 2 or 3 spot colors, which means 1 less plate than CMYK.

Before you request a quote, remember to ask the printer if they can use Pantone colors, and if so, how many inks total can be printed. Also keep in mind that if you’re printing photography, you need CMYK no matter what, so you would have to start at 4 colors.

When the time comes to decide whether or not you need special inks, consider how much control you need to have over color. It may mean a slightly larger investment, but your client will definitely see a return on it. After all, the better packaging looks, the more it will sell.


Agustina de la Plaza
Agustina is the owner at Freelo Design, a boutique design studio specialized in branding and packaging. During her 15 years of experience she has worked for brands big and small: from Pepsico, Walmart and WhiteWave to smaller start-ups where she has created branding and packaging from scratch.

Her interest and passion for design extends far beyond her day job. She also likes to theorize and write about design, creativity and most obsessively packaging. When she isn’t consumed in all things design, she spends her free time hiking the Rocky Mountains and planning her next trip.