Understanding colour - CMYK v RGB

Think your designer is talking some secret language? Confused if its CMR-what-the?! As a designer, getting colour correct is vital - it can effect how your brand will be displayed, printed or even embroidered. Having a basic understanding of how colour works, will help you de-bunk some of the language used (even if it still sounds like a foreign language!).

There are two main colour options:

  1. RGB = Red, Green, Blue

  2. CMYK = Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Key (Black)


What is RBG?

RGB is used exclusively in the digital design industry because it represents the same colors used in computer screens, TV screens, as well as mobile device screens. It’s an additive color system which means that the primary colors are added together in various combinations to produce a much wider spectrum of colors.

When should you use RGB?

As a general rule of thumb, the RGB color system should be used only in digital designs, most commonly when designing for the web. This includes designing websites and imagery and graphics for use on websites and social media.

What is CMYK?

CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key (Black). Black, in this case, is referred to as key because it is used in the key plate which is responsible for adding the contrast and the detail for the final image.

The CMYK color system is also referred to as four-color process because it uses four different colors to produce different hues. The black color here is used because the other three colors combined cannot produce a fully saturated black.

Unlike the RGB color system, CMYK is a subtractive color model because the printed ink reduces the light that would normally be reflected. The inks used subtract the brightness from a white background from those four colors.

The CMYK colors are mixed during the printing process which can sometimes cause minor inconsistencies. For that reason, you should print it out or ask your printer for a printed proof. Just remember - Your proof from your designer will look differently on your computer/iPhone or iPad, so print it out first!

When should you use CMYK?

CMYK is the recommended color system for anything that will be printed. This includes business cards, brochures, letterheads, and any other business collateral.

Pantone Colours

Another colour option I hear you say?! Pantone colors are associated with a color matching system, the Pantone Matching System (PMS). This is where inks are created into distinct shades. These colors are then printed out in a color-matching swatch book. Quite a few processed hues are grueling to produce via process printing, particularly some shades of orange and green, so utilizing a Pantone color guarantees a consistent color match. Projects can be printed on five or six color-presses applying the four process colors in addition to one or two Pantone colors (spot) to make a decisive color match.

Hopefully that gives you a little understanding of the colour options. As a designer, I was design in CMYK first. I select your Pantone colours first, then create the CMYK version of the colour and finally the RBG version. Making sure the colour is consistent (as it can be) across the codes. These colour breakdowns are then added into your brand guidelines, to ensure that when you’re using your brand, it is consistent. Read more about branding guidelines here.

Emma BarrettComment