Open Colour Standard: free/open alternative to Pantone

Ginger coons writes in about the Open Colour Standard, "an effort to create a new colour standard to help free/open source graphics programs bridge the gap between screen and print."
It's like Pantone's spot colour standard [ed: a widely used proprietary system for describing "spot" colors -- that is, colors that need special inks to print. Pantone distributes both the inks and books of color swatches. Designers pick colors out of the book and the printer loads the extra ink into her apparatus at print time], but not necessarily in opposition to it. Just different. is the official site, currently in the form of a wiki hosting discussion about how an Open Colour Standard can/should be created. Here is a great big backgrounder, explaining and documenting the first stages of an original, not tied to an ink manufacturer, colour standard that F/LOSS graphics users can call their own.

And here's a piece explaining the rationale and history behind an Open Colour Standard. Seems straightforward, but is proving to be surprisingly controversial. Looks like a lot of people really do see creating a new colour standard as futile, useless and hopelessly quixotic.

From the article: "What we have, then, is a venerable, widely supported, but largely inflexible and very expensive de facto standard. It has a huge impact on both print and digital media, not to mention the clothes you wear, the color you paint your living room, even the specific shades used to define healthy dirt or high-grade orange juice. It is, in short, a bloated monopoly eating up more and more of the color market... If [Open Colour Standard] works, this effort could open up spot color, make open-source software more viable for pre-press, and maybe even inspire a little kitchen table chemistry. Most importantly, it would take the cross-platform treatment of color out of the hands of a private company and put it where it belongs, with users."

Open Color Standard (Thanks, Ginger!)

(Image: untitled photo, licensed Creative Commons Attribution, from iboy_daniel's photostream)


  1. Isn’t this just a proposed duplication of work already being done by the International Colour Consortium?

    The purpose of the ICC is to promote the use and adoption of open, vendor-neutral, cross-platform color(sp) management systems.

  2. Anon #1: No. ICC is about standardizing color output… color management. Open Color is about creating a palette which anyone can use without having to pay for it.

    The Pantone Palettes are all patented and trademarked. Open source applications like Inkscape, Scribus, Gimp, OpenOffice, etc. can not use Pantone because a) the developers would have to purchase licenses to do so, and b) it would basically break the GPL of those apps.

    I’d love to see this happen, but the hard sell, here, is going to be the printers. Pantone is *the* standard on spot colors. Most printers will not want to use anything else. And really, if all they do is come up with a palette that merely has formulas for CMYK, it misses the point of spot colors.

    Getting printers to start using something other than Pantone (or even, really, in addition to their current systems) is going to be harder than convincing corporate America to switch to Linux.

    1. vert (#2) is right: this idea is looong overdue, but it’s the printers that will need to be convinced. as a designer, i’m all for this project. but the buck stops at the printers, who have spent a fortune in time, equipment & materials to be calibrated for the pantone system.

  3. All of the colors I use are freely provided by the universe. I really hope the universe isn’t secretly charging me, I’ve seen some pretty amazing stuff.

    Maybe the universe has been sending me a DMCA takedown notice of sorts but my primitive ape brain hasn’t been able to comprehend it.

  4. Anonymous #1: AFAIK the ICC is just a color-matching standard, i.e. a method for standardizing devices in separate color spaces.

    My first thought is that Opencolor is a fantastic idea and long overdue — it would’ve revolutionized printing about 20 years ago. My second thought is that the competitive landscape has shifted away from the need for more color specifications.

    The installed user base for ink specifications is declining (print is dying, or something like that), so competition space is shrinking. These days most people have little use for Pantone formulas…I routinely have to describe to freelance clients what a PMS number even *is*. No one (at my end of the market anyway) even cares about having their own PMS number. Correct color isn’t even on the radar, because digital printers can match RGB color pretty well. Heck, my $100 inkjet printer has 8 inks. If I get all my devices on the same ICC profile and use a bright stock, I can print pretty good swatches for the doggy daycare.

    I’m also the full-time web designer for an international nonprofit. At the *really* low end of the market this is a total nonissue — see for example

    And for the customers (and their vendors) who want truly custom colors — the cost of a proprietary color format is actually seen as insurance against brand piracy. I reckon only one company has exclusive global rights to the Pantone formula for Coca Cola red. You’re free to try to duplicate that color in another scheme for ink formulas (and copyleft it, too), but from Coke’s perspective, the proprietary format is a feature, not a bug.

    Finally, starting a printing business isn’t cheap, and buying proprietary inks (& ink formulas) is a cost that can be passed directly to the customer, along with paper, diecuts, etc. So the promise of “free-as-in-beer” doesn’t have a lot of pull.

  5. Now if only there was a way to do screen and printer calibration easily in Linux with DataColor Spyder probes…

  6. Cute, but as a printer who HAPPILY offers to do PMS matches, I don’t see this catching on.

    Pantone do come off as big and mean and expensive, but in reality its not so bad. Lots of older books out there- buy last years model on Ebay for half the price, keep it in a drawer and it’s good for years. No one buys a new book for $80 every year.

    The real problem in print today is dying knowledge of spot colors. “Designers” are used to working for the screen and being able to have every color they can imagine at the same time. Everything they have ‘printed’ in college is done on Xerox color copier, and they don’t learn a thing about pre-press.

    Print is a dying medium but it ain’t dead yet.

  7. Yeah, I agree. I’m a prepress tech in flexographic packaging. Switching over to any other standard would be really hard. I truly applaud the effort, but I have little hope for it. Aside from the aforementioned proofing calibration, which would be hard but not impossible, there is the on press stuff to think about. Printers often have very expensive systems to mix ink for them. Right now Pantone Geo is starting to roll out and be adopted by printers who are trying not to panic about a new system by an old company.

    On the other hand, I don’t think it’s necessarily totally in the printer’s hands. They want business. The reason they’re starting to half assedly support Geo is because they think customers are going to start asking for it and if they can’t support it at all they’ll go somewhere else. If big customers start asking for another system, and do it in quantity, printers will figure out some way to support it, even if they have to quasi do it by mixing Pantone system inks for a while to match.

    If a couple of big identity companies decide it’s sexy to be open source and start talking open source color standards for some big corporate clients. *shrug* I guess it could happen. It’s quite a mountain to move though.

  8. This seems doomed to failure. The only downside Pantone has in the commercial world is that the swatches are seen as expensive by design students and freelancers. But the cost of swatchbooks is to a large extent a product of the press setup fees for the spot color swatches; going open-source can’t change that. So yeah, I would say that this is quixotic at best.

  9. (FYI to #7 and those who might be researching Pantone’s newest offering — the name is “Pantone Goe”, not Geo.)

    I’m not seeing anything “surprisingly controversial” on the linked page…an anti-GPL troll, a grammar-nazi kid, a polemic on “free market” vs. “the Politburo’s interventions” (from someone claiming prepresss experience but who manages to confuse spot color with process color; wups!), and the rest are mostly well-informed thumbs-up or -down remarks from folks who regularly work in the ink-on-paper field. Not much to see here….

    I wish the project the best of luck, but there’s no real driver to induce the existing client->designer->printer chain to turn from Pantone. Without a well-financed foundation or industry partners, bootstrapping open source color will be tough. I’ll be happy to climb aboard when every one of my output and calibration devices has good profiles and when I can be assured that swatch books will be accurately printed for years to come, but until then I’ve got more important things to spend time/money/resources on. (A similar problem to widespread use of linux-on-the-desktop — easy adoption of the platform requires device drivers for everything, yet device drivers are slow to come while the platform isn’t widely adopted.)

  10. OK, I do have ink in my blood, having been an offset printer for some 12 years. The Pantone Matching System for spot or flat color is based on 16 standard colors. The PMS swatch book gives the formulas for mixing the thousands of colors in the system. Ink manufacturers make the 16 colors that make the system work. They are happy to mix and can them for the printer as well, but if you are operating a print shop, it is much more economical to keep the 16 colors on hand and mix as needed. An experienced printer can judge accurately how much ink to mix for a given job. My question is: how is an open source system going to work if it is going to have to rely on the same set of standard pigments? Or is it going to get the ink manufactures to start making a whole new set of base colors to mix from? You’re going to have to reboot a whole section of the printing industry to do that.

    Note: there are a lot of non-PMS novelty inks out there as well. Metallic inks ,day-glow inks, etc.

  11. Open source applications like Inkscape, Scribus, Gimp, OpenOffice, etc. can not use Pantone…

    Well, no, but if you want to use Pantone properly you need a book anyway, to know what the ink *actually* looks like. And if you have a book, you don’t need Pantone software. You can use an approximate spot colour in the programme of your choice and tell your printer to use the Pantone ink. You can even call your spot colour by the pantone name for clarity.

    Anything else, eg using Pantone pickers to choose RGB or CMYK colours, is basically nonsense from a design point of view.

    That said, an open standard sounds good; I’m not enough of a printer to assess what is practical.

  12. As an end-user with an offset background, I gotta agree: precise color seems dead. It’s not just that nearly every four-color laser printer has a wildly out-of-gamut magenta toner (the better to match photos, I think); it’s that absolutely nobody seems to know that this is a problem, which means nobody’s complaining.

    I had a Lexmark and an Oki 9400 with this problem; I saw the same trouble with HP. Xerox’s Phaser 7750 is based on the DocuColor 12 engine, and it’s the only one that gets it right. Forget PMS matching; we can’t even do basic CMYK anymore.

  13. I have to disagree with some of the comments here. I’ve been a printer/ink mixer for 16 years now, and in my experience it’s not the printers who would be resistant to using another color matching system besides Pantone. We’ll go along with just about anything our customers request just to get their business. There’s no way in hell we’re going to risk losing their business by refusing to go along with their color matching system. In addition to Pantone, we often get requests for Toyo colors, HKS, etc. We even get the occasional Sherwin Williams chips to match to. We may grumble a bit between ourselves, but we always cheerfully accept what our customers request.

  14. It just occurred to me that there doesn’t seem to be a way to talk about the color of my own skin that’s not rooted in some old fashioned ideas about race. I *could* hold up a pantone swatch and get some spot matches, but then I still don’t have rights to the name that comes up.

    I’d love to see this open standard get some use in ways that no one has thought of yet.

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