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  • Writer's pictureJudith Davison

RGB, CMYK, PMS - A three minute lowdown on colour

Updated: May 27, 2020

Argh, not more design acronyms! Before you switch off, here are the key points about colour you need to know when it comes to marketing for your small business (and a few Q&As from clients). The rest* you can leave to your designer.


Where would we be without the wonderful world of colour? Lost in a monotone world! Fortunately that's not the case.... but how do designers work with colour? The answer is through a range of colour models. Think about choosing paint in the paint shop - you look at a guide. Same process for designers - on a universal basis. The industry-standard colour models are RGB, CMYK and PMS.

Colour modes

1. RGB is for on-screen colours. Easy to remember: RGB stands for red, green and blue. This mode makes up all the colours in your digital designs by mixing these three colours. HEX codes are 6 digit numbers that represent RGB colours and usually used in web and app designing.

2. CMYK is for print colours. Not quite as easy to remember: CMYK stands for cyan, magenta, yellow and key. Key means black. A printer makes up colours by mixing these four together.

3. PMS is Pantone Match System and is a standard language for colours used in many industries (fashion, packaging, manufacturing, interior design, etc). A Pantone code is for a specific shade (currently there are 1,867 colours) and is created from a palette of 18 colours. Pantone comes in standard reference charts for different applications (coated, uncoated, fashion, home & interiors, etc).


Q1. How can I make sure that my brand is the same colour in everything I do?

Be definitive as you can. It’s not enough to say “I want a red like my red logo” – you wouldn’t believe how many reds there are! Define your brand colours in all three codes. Having a written style guide for your brand helps! Your designer can help by using a Pantone guide - start there because it’s a tangible colour guide and use a converter to find your RGB & CMYK codes (https://www.pantone.com/color-finder).

For example, when I created the branding style guide for ciencia, we identified:

  • Pantone: Mars Red 18-1655 for all packaging

  • CMYK: C:13, M:100, Y:100, K:16 for all printed brochures

  • RGB: R:138, G:28, B:33 for website and social media

ciencia has a big team of people (internal and external) working with their branding style all the time – they all have the ciencia style guide. There is no room for mis-interpretation or “close enough” when it comes to their brand red!

Q2. Why does my printed brochure look different/dull/muted to the one I approved onscreen?

The colour you see on screen is in RGB. The final product in print is CMYK.

Since RGB and CMYK colours are made from different processes (one is three base colours and the other is four), you can’t expect to convert from RGB to CMYK without losing some color. CMYK has a much smaller range of color than a screen is capable of so you will never have the same depth in print. If you are doing an important print production and not sure of your colour codes, to avoid disappointment always check a printer proof first.

Final Word

*I think a healthy fascination with colour is a prerequisite for being a good graphic designer! Colour modes, the science behind colour in design and the technical side of colour printing are very complex. This blog barely scratches the surface but aims to define a few key terms for small business owners trying to get a handle on their marketing.

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