Decoding Colors :: CMYK | PMS | RGB

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Written by: Nice Branding Agency

Categories: Branding Tips

We’ve found that some of our jargon (such as CMYK, RGB, PMS) leaves our clients feeling like they’ve been left out of an inside joke. When we throw around terms like CMYK, RGB, and PMS, we are most often met with a kind smile and a nod that says, “I have no idea what you’re talking about, but that’s fine. Whatever you say!” While we love that our clients trust us to do what’s best, we think that an important part of our job is to provide valuable insight into the design process so that you come away from our experiences together feeling more informed. Without getting too technical, we’ve put together a quick guide that breaks down the terms CMYK, RGB, PMS, so the next time you’re talking to a designer or printer, you can really talk the talk.


CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black, and the majority of the world’s printing is done using this standardized process. In fact, most office printers are set up to print with a CMYK cartridge. When a file is set up to print with these four colors, it’s referred to as a four-color process or a full-color process. CMYK colors are somewhat transparent, and during the printing process the colors are layered to produce the desired hue. If all four colors are layered, black is the result. However, there’s more to the layering than meets the eye, and colors are layered in different quantities to produce the exact shade required. Not all shades are created equal, and you may be surprised to find that true black is the new black. Just to give you an example, black can be produced with C=0, M=0, Y=0, K=100, but a nice, rich, beautiful black is actually C=75 M=68 Y=67 K=90, or some variation of that. This is referred to in the industry as a ‘rich black build.' Printing with CMYK is typically more economical than printing with Pantone colors (hold tight, more on this later), but there are a couple drawbacks to consider. With this process, there’s room for variation in the colors printed on different printers, or even on the same printer during a different print run. For example, when you have a set of business cards printed with CMYK, the color may not be exactly the same as it was on your last batch of cards. The difference is usually negligible, and the risk is often worth the savings. However, if it’s imperative that your colors are spot-on (and you don’t have too many colors), then it's a job for PMS color to take on!


Pantone Matching System, or PMS for short, is a system designed by the Pantone company to create a world where colors can be printed exactly as they were intended. The Pantone system is based on thousands of swatches, just like an enormous book of paint swatches. Each swatch is numbered, and that number is referred to as the PMS number or spot code. Jobs printed with Pantone use pre-mixed, opaque colors to ensure that the colors are matched accurately and that the printed details are super sharp. Sounds great, right? Why would you print any other way, right? Well, here’s the catch. Printing in Pantone is only really realistic if you have a one- or two-color job. Mayyybe three or four colors. But any more than that, and the price to print all Pantone colors would be too much to bear. Imagine having to pre-mix each of the colors that appear in a photograph? Yeah, not gonna happen. Plus, not all print vendors have the capability to print with Pantone colors. Do you have Pantone colors but you need to print CMYK? Provide your printer with your PMS codes, and they may be able to color match them to create a resulting color that’s close to an exact match! Before you get too excited, make a mental note that not all PMS colors can be matched to CMYK -- especially darker shades of blue.



What do you think this one stands for? Come on, give it a guess. Yep, RGB stands for Red, Green, and Blue. This three-color process is reserved for digital design, and, unlike CMYK, when all three colors are combined, the result is the absence of color. Rather than being blended in ink, RGB colors are created by the blending of light based on the ROYGBIV principle. Web-safe colors are a set of 216 RGB colors that will most likely display correctly on a myriad of monitors. Keep in mind that every monitor is calibrated a bit differently in terms of hue and brightness, so what you see on your screen might not be exactly what someone else sees. To break this down a bit further, let’s take a look at Hex Codes. These six-digit codes are divided into pairs, and each pair represents the intensity of red, green, and blue. Hex Codes are represented on a scale where 00 represents the lowest intensity of a color and FF represents the highest intensity. Here’s where it gets a bit tricky. In web colors, white is created when the highest intensity of the three colors are mixed. So, the Hex Code for white is #FFFFFF and the code for black is #000000. We’ll give you a minute to let that sink in. As a final note, we’d like to leave you with the fact that proper printer coordination is key. Instead of taking your files to the printer yourself, allow your agency to be the controller of color. We work with many different print vendors, including a local printer in Lakeland called Innovative Ink. Our relationship with our peeps at Innovative Ink really gives our clients an edge since our designers and their printers can almost literally read each other’s minds. Allowing your designer or agency to coordinate your printing will help ensure that colors come out as intended, regardless of which print vendor is being used for the job. While you may be tempted to save your pennies and coordinate the print job yourself, having the pros handle your print coordination is well worth the cost and could save you the heartache of periwinkle when you were hoping for royal blue. When you’re creating a brand that will be deployed across many assets both in print and online, it’s crucial that you know your colors in all formats (CMYK, RGB, PMS) and the options available to you. If you don’t remember all of the nitty gritty details, just remember this: CMYK and PMS are for printed materials, and RGB is for digital. Not real sure if your brand has these color parameters set in stone? Contact Nice Branding and we will help you make sure these branding basics are sorted out for your company.