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RGB v CMYK v Pantone

It’s a question we often get asked and it isn’t always an easy one to explain so this is our simple guide to the key difference between RGB and CMYK and Pantone colours and how they are used.

We could go into a lot more detail about the differences, the application, and best practice for colour management so if you would like to know more please get in touch.

RGB

When colours are displayed on-screen they are made up of Red, Green, and Blue lights or pixels. So your RGB (sometimes referred to as hex) colour is simply the combination of Red, Green, and Blue pixels required to get a good on-screen colour match. For example, a  bright Red will have the RGB value R:255 G:0 B:0. This means that it is made up of all red pixels with no green or blue.  This Colour for example is R:255 G:0 B:255 which is the maximum amount (255) of red pixels, no green pixels, and the maximum amount of blue pixels.

A HEX code is something used by web designers and developers and is basically shorthand for RGB. For example, the HEX code for Red (R:255 G:0 B:0) is #FF0000.

There can be some variation in the way RGB colours appear because each device, whether it’s a phone, tablet, computer, or TV screen will have a different screen set up and contrast levels etc. However, picking and sticking to an RGB colour for all screen graphics (website, social media, email, video etc) will ensure the colour is consistent.

RGB Mouse Pointer

Click to zoom into this image to see an example of how CMYK colours are combined to make new colours.

CMYK

Most printers, whether they are laser, inkjet, or a lithographic printing press work using Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black (K) inks or toner. The difference between RGB and CMYK is that your CMYK colour is the mixture of those 4 colours required to get the closest match compared to RGB that combines Red, Green, and Blue. In theory, when something is printed using CMYK, it should be a close match to how the colour appears on screen.  Using the RGB red above as an example, when converted to CMYK it would be C:0 M:100 Y:100 K:0 – that means 0% Cyan, 100% Magenta, 100% Yellow, and 0% Black.

A printing press should always produce the most accurate printing results as they are highly calibrated and constantly monitored for colour accuracy. Inkjet printers tend to be the next most accurate as they use actual ink a bit like the printing presses and then digital printers can vary more as they use toner (a powdered substance) to burn the image to the page. However, a good quality, well-calibrated digital press used by a professional printer should be able to match most CMYK colours.

Pantone

Pantone is a colour matching system (PMS) that contains a library of colours used in a variety of uses to ensure accurate colour matching. With lithographic printing, using Pantone ink ensures that your colour is the same every time as you’re essentially using off the shelf pre-mixed ink of the exact colour instead of creating the colour using a mixture of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black inks.

Pantone colours are normally used when it is important to get your brand colour 100% right every time, or if your colour is very hard to achieve using the CMYK process. However, when using traditional printing methods Pantone inks are more expensive and can push the price of the job up which is why most people print in CMYK.

The Pantone Matching System (PMS) is also used for many other applications such as signage, clothing, and other merchandise. The difference when compared to lithographic printing though is that when printing on different materials like this, the traditional Pantone inks cannot be used. Instead, a form of digital printing is normally used and the Pantone number is used as a guide. Much like digital printers, the machinery used to replicate the Pantone colours requires careful and constant calibration in order to match the colour. Suppliers should use Pantone swatch books to ensure that the final product matches the Pantone colour as closely as possible

In some uses such as embroidery or vinyl signage, the material is bought in set Pantone colours. That’s why sometimes you might find that a supplier hasn’t got your exact colour as they simply couldn’t make vinyl in every Pantone colour in the book.

How does this work in practice?

At Yellow Cat Design, when we create a new brand we will normally start with an RGB version of the logo so that when we send the initial ideas to our clients, what they’re seeing on screen is an accurate representation of how the logo will appear. As part of the process, we will convert and cross-reference colours using a Pantone book to ensure that the colour reproduces well when printed.

A useful tool for choosing colours is a Pantone/CMYK swatch book which shows how the Pantone and CMYK colours compare side-by-side when printed. This helps identify any colours such as bright greens, that are hard to reproduce when printing in CMYK.

Software such as Adobe Photoshop is used to convert the RGB colour to the equivalent CMYK and Pantone colours. We can create guideline documents that list each colour as well as other aspects of your brand such as fonts, tone of voice and image style to ensure your brand is used consistently.

Ultimately, you should never really need to know the difference between RGB and CMYK because your designer should handle it all for you. However, we hope this article has been helpful for those who want understand the basic difference between RGB and CMYK and Pantone colours.

For more detail on the subject, please get in touch.

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