In an email interview, Pantone Vice President and General Manager Elley Cheng told CreativePro that the future of Pantone colors in Adobe products lies in add-on software, Pantone Connect, which will let the color systems company sell complete and up-to-date color data directly to its own users.
“We envision [Pantone Connect] to be Pantone’s flagship digital platform,” Cheng said.
In addition to Pantone’s basic spot color matching system, Pantone+ Solid, the affected color libraries include process color systems and libraries for metallic inks and pastel and neon colors. Those swatches include versions of data for colors destined to be printed on coated and uncoated papers.
Pantone color swatches have been included in Adobe software—like InDesign, as pictured here—based on a licensing agreement that expired eight years ago and has been extended incrementally.
In late November, those looking at Adobe’s online documentation about color swatches found an alert that, with measured vagueness, warned of the impending changes to Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, Acrobat, Adobe Color, and Adobe Capture.
In March, the color definitions “will be removed from future software updates,” the message read. “To minimize the impact of this change, we are working on an alternative solution for the affected products. Stay tuned for updates.”
For printers and industry insiders, the decision will certainly disrupt workflows and habits of quality assurance. And some consumers are balking at the prospect of paying a new subscription fee on top of the recurring charges to license Adobe software.
On top of the usual Adobe Creative Cloud subscription plans, Pantone Connect will cost $7.99 per month or $35.99 for a full year for the first year and $59.99 annually thereafter.
“This is a very disappointing example of two major suppliers to our sector not thinking of the needs of their clients,” printing and prepress business consultant Paul Sherfield wrote in a blog post. “While recognizing [that] Adobe [has] been slow over the past years in updating areas such as these color books and ICC profiles to the latest specifications and standards, most were using the Pantone color books within Adobe CC in a seamless workflow.”
A Spot Color by Any Other Name
Over the past 50 years, Pantone has morphed from a specialty printer and ink manufacturer to a dominating force in the field of color, with a division that “forecasts global color trends and advises companies on color in brand identity and product development, for the application and integration of color as a strategic asset,” according to its website.
Nothing will prevent a user of the affected software from creating a brand-new color swatch as a spot color, selecting a color using RGB sliders to match the printed Pantone chip. For many graphic designers, doing just that and naming it by a number from a color guide will create files that can be imaged to printing plates uneventfully.
But according to Cheng, the value of Pantone colors lies in their “underlying colorimetric properties”—objective numeric definitions of the color within the spectrum visible to the human eye.
Unlike colors expressed as RGB or CMYK—which will vary depending on the monitor or the printer, respectively—these spectral color definitions using the L*a*b* color model are absolute, and Cheng describes the proprietary information as “the essential DNA of each Pantone color.”
With the help of color profiles, these numbers can be used to create consistent color throughout a production process, and given the right equipment and workflows, that data can be used with devices like spectrophotometers to measure color accuracy with more scientific precision than that exasperatingly picky art director on a press check.
A spectrophotometer can measure how much light is absorbed by color. By comparing it to Pantone’s proprietary spectral color data, the device can measure the accuracy of a spot color on press.
“The value of Pantone’s spectral data is indispensable for more advanced color work, including design realization, production, and advanced color conversions,” Cheng said. “While this is typically out of the design realm, knowing that Pantone Connect links directly to this vast color store help designers work with confidence in the authenticity of their color selections.”
From Color Library to Pantone Connect
According to Dun & Bradstreet, the company employs 140 people in Carlstadt, N.J., with Cheng describing a “a small family business culture” behind the intellectual property.
By multiple accounts, for eight years, Pantone has incrementally extended the terms of an expired license for Adobe to include the color libraries in its software products, which contractually precluded change in the color data or additions to the swatch libraries.
“Pantone was unable to actively update the library to correct any changes to the color data or to update it with new colors,” Cheng told CreativePro. “We had to find a way to address user problems regarding these outdated libraries.”
Marketing color access by subscription to Pantone Connect might be the future for Adobe users, but Cheng said that Pantone continues to license up-to-date Pantone color data to Serif (for its Affinity suite of applications), to Quark, and to Corel, as well as to “Pantone’s many other software partners.”
For her part, Cheng dismissed conjectures of acrimony between Pantone and Adobe, calling Adobe “a trusted partner throughout the development process” of Pantone Connect.
At present, the software comes as a web service and an Extension for Photoshop, InDesign, and Illustrator, which effectively puts a mobile version of the website into a panel in the respective applications. Pantone Connect promises to capture the color data not only for the Pantone libraries on the chopping block but also for a range of 15,000 “brand, print, fashion, and packaging colors” in more than 12 color systems. Pantone also offers mobile apps for iOS and Google Play.
A free version of the service lets users download color swatches based on sRGB approximations of the colors.
CreativePro was able to access the Extension on the latest versions of InDesign and Illustrator. Users of Photoshop on the Mac M1 processor will find that the Extension won’t load at all, as Adobe has changed the file format for add-on software. Users wishing to access Pantone Connect and other Extensions will need to run the Intel version of Photoshop under Rosetta 2 or downgrade to version 22.2.0 via the Creative Cloud app.
The shift is not without other complications
Introduced to the Adobe Creative Cloud Exchange in 2019, the Extension is encumbered with dozens of withering, furious one-star reviews, most posted since the Adobe announcement from recent users raging at the prospect of a new subscription and complaining of performance and user interface issues in the add-on.
The software replaces a previous product, Pantone Color Manager, which offered free digital access with the purchase of physical swatch books. That product has been discontinued, along with the free access—another source of consumer rancor.
Though some users found the software perfectly acceptable, two reviews capture the recent zeitgeist.
One user, Paul Nylander, posted in December: “As every reviewer has pointed out, the plug-in is nearly useless without buying the additional subscription. Let me be clear in a way that apparently Pantone cannot: THE FREE VERSION DOES NOT LET YOU USE PANTONE COLORS IN ADOBE SOFTWARE. This, as with nearly every feature other than color lookup, is only available with a ‘premium’ subscription.”
Another reviewer, Julie Napolitano, described it as “buggy and complete garbage.”
Cheng described the Pantone Connect plug-in as “still in its early development phase” and thanked early adopters and Adobe for continuing participation in improving its quality.
Legacy Documents Will Be Fine
One thing is clear: Existing documents—both native application documents and PDFs generated for publication or distribution—will be unaffected by any changes, with essential color information (though it might be from data that Pantone says is long outdated) remaining embedded in the documents that are created with current tools. And Cheng points out that subscribers to Pantone Connect can expect minimal disruption in their workflows.
Users on professional online forums say it’s fair game for designers to back up color data files and to be poised to restore them to the proper folders should future releases remove the digital assets.
All color libraries for the programs—not just from Pantone, but from other vendors like Trumatch and Toyo—are saved as Adobe Color Book (ACB) files in a folder of varying names within the Presets folder in each respective application. While users hardly ever find themselves accessing such configuration files, these digital resources are within easy reach.
The legacy data in Adobe software is stored with other color definitions from other vendors within the Preset folder for respective applications.
Cheng describes such measures from Pantone’s vantage point as “neither legal nor ethical.”
“I won’t speak to exactly how impermissible use is detected and discouraged, but I will speak to how hard and passionately the Pantone team has worked on all the Pantone colors and products,” she said.
Retired Adobe software trainer and longtime CreativePro contributor Claudia McCue has also suggested creating original Illustrator documents with desired swatches from Pantone libraries and saving them as custom Adobe Swatch Exchange (ASE) files—a method that stays within the lines of normal use of the software, even if it is inconsistent with Cheng’s appeal.
Still oh-so-Many Questions
CreativePro asked Adobe a series of questions about the implications of its announcement: what an alternative solution would look like, what resources would be involved in crafting one, the stability of its relationship with other color matching systems integrated in its software, and the legal and ethical implications of restoring existing backed-up color swatch data from Pantone after March.
Through its media relations company, the company responded to the range of questions with a single statement.
“In the coming months, Pantone Color Libraries may no longer be available through software updates for some of our apps,” Adobe wrote on Dec. 21. “To minimize the impact of this change, we are working on an alternative solution. Stay tuned for updates.”
Jeff Potter, a creative professional with close to 40 years of experience in all aspects of publishing, works as one of your editors at CreativePro Network. Separately, he also is the proud editor and designer of The Commons, a nonprofit community newspaper in Brattleboro, Vermont.