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CMYK, RGB, PMS: Color Systems Defined

May 13, 2011 | Design Basics

Frequently, we get requests for logos, photos or other artwork to be used in ads, web sites, reviews, magazines, etc. Often we don’t know the application, we just hear: “Can you send that photo?” Usually our next question is about how the image will be used. The reason we ask is that the correct type of file, including color type, is dependent on the application. Below is a basic explanation of the different color systems.

PMS = Pantone Matching System

The Pantone Matching System is a system of thousands of numbered swatches. Most corporate colors, in a logo for example, are identified with a number from this system. You’ll often hear it referred to as a PMS number. Pantone colors are also called “spot” colors.

This is similar to picking paint at the hardware store to paint your walls: You refer to swatches, choose by number and then the color is pre-mixed before application. This is good for applications that are predominantly one color (or two) such as a business card.

Printing a 1 or 2 color job can be less expensive than a 4-color job because there are fewer printing plates made. This system also creates the most accurate color match and the sharpest details.

CMYK = Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black. Also called 4-color, or process

CMYK colors, 4-color process

CMYK refers to full color printing. Note: because of the potential confusion with the words and abbreviations for blue and black, blue is called cyan and abbreviated C, and black is abbreviated K.

The dots of a 4-color process printed photo, enlarged.

While using PMS colors is best for something that prints in limited colors, imagine if you had to pre-mix each color used within a photograph. It would be nearly impossible. Instead, the CMYK or Four-Color process is used. For every possible shade and color, this process determines the percentages of each of the four colors (CMYK) needed to make that color.  This is then translated into very small dots. The human eye blends these colors together to see the full spectrum of color.

CMYK is used whenever there are full color images, or when the number of colors makes it more practical than using just PMS colors. CMYK is also the primary system for digital printing, as specific pantone colors can not be put into a inkjet or laser printer.

Full color, offset (professional) printing is always CMYK. However, a large press can accommodate the four colors of cyan, magenta, yellow and black plus additional Pantone colors if necessary. Sometimes that is done if there are photos that require CMYK, but a logo that prints best used the actual Pantone ink. In that case, it would be called a five color print job.

Visible Logic's CMYK formulaRGB = Red, Green, Blue

RGB = Red, Green, BlueRGB is the color system for computer monitors, video, etc. Without going into the science, it is critical to understand that PMS and CMYK are for printed pieces and RGB is for computer applications such as web sites.

Web Safe colors are a sub-set of 216 RGB colors that accurately display even on monitors with a very limited spectrum of colors. These days, most computer monitors have better video cards and higher resolution and can view more than this limited palette. However there are still some web-based design code that prefers these colors.

Finally, it’s important to note that while these are called “safe”, that does NOT mean a color will look the same from one monitor to the next. Variability with screen brightness, lighting conditions, and hue & contrast settings will render the exact same color differently from one computer monitor to the next.

For reference, Visible Logic’s green is: r140 / g198 / b63. This is also given a hexadecimal number of: 8cc63f You can see that green in the logo at the top of this web site.

Always provide the right file

Always try to provide the correct file type and color profile for the intended application. This will ensure the most accurate color and avoid problems.

While Visible Logic, and many of your vendors, can switch a file from one color format to another, some systems cannot handle an incorrect format and files may render incorrectly or not at all.

When developing a new logo or branding identity it is best to define your color in all three colors systems. For example, Visible Logic’s logo is: PMS376  green; or 50%cyan/0magenta/100%yellow/0black; or r140 / g198 / b63. If required to use a web safe color, I use #669900.

Keep in mind that some colors translate more easily across systems, than others.

This topic of color systems was covered in my Graphic Design 101 presentation. If you found this helpful, you may want to read and download that entire presentation which also covers, typography, file types, layout, hierarchy, etc.

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  1. Black is Key | August 18, 2011 at 2:45 pm

    I would like to know what sources you used to come up with “because of the potential confusion with the words and abbreviations for blue and black, blue is called cyan and abbreviated C, and black is abbreviated K.” ?

    Black is K because K stands for “Key”. Black is the Key plate to which all other plates are aligned on the press.

    Cyan is NOT Blue and does not represent Blue and is not used for the abbreviation of blue.
    In hex:
    Blue: #0000FF
    Cyan: #00FFFF

    Blue: Wavelength 440–490 nm
    Frequency ~680–610 THz

    Cyan: Wavelength 490–520 nm
    Frequency 610–575 THz

    Look it up on Wikipedia.

    Thanks for sharing, I hope you will correct your article.

  2. Emily Brackett | August 18, 2011 at 3:14 pm

    @black is key. Thanks for chiming in. I had never heard of the K being for Key and I learned something new.

    You are right that Cyan is not the same as blue, however if you spend time around a press room you’ll hear people refer to blue ink or blue plates all the time. While technically this is incorrect, it’s very common industry jargon which can confuse people (see that forum post).

    The realization that 3 basic/primary colors + black can be used to create nearly every color is an idea that comes from painting. So there is always a connection between blue/red/yellow and cyan/magenta/yellow. It turns out that a more turquoise shade of blue and a more pink shade of red works better than the true primary colors we think of when trying to separate and recreate the spectrum of colors using just 4 base colors.

  3. same day gifts | September 19, 2011 at 1:47 pm

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  4. Emily Brackett | September 19, 2011 at 2:01 pm

    Yes, please backlink (rather than just copying and pasting). Thanks.

  5. inciler | November 12, 2011 at 8:57 am

    This is really helpful. Especially for students that just graduated and don’t really have an experience in how to use colors for print.
    Thank you for sharing.

  6. Four Color Offset Printing | January 15, 2013 at 4:57 am

    Thanks for the update. I really appreciate the efforts you have made for this blog.

  7. David Derex | July 13, 2013 at 7:44 pm


    Would you consider the photographic darkroom process (chromogenic prints) to be RGB or CMYK?

    David Derex

  8. Emily Brackett | July 17, 2013 at 1:58 pm

    David, Great question. This definitely outside my area of expertise, but things like darkroom prints are probably like original artwork such as a painting, and are neither. They are only translated into CMYK or RGB when they need to converted to a different medium. When someone scans a photograph or painting that is when it gets converted to a system that renders each piece of the picture into CMYK or RGB.

  9. TH | July 22, 2014 at 2:21 pm

    I’m not currently working in print but needed to answer a question on this for a client. What a well-written, clear, and well-organized explanation! Thank you for contributing the internet in a useful way :)

  10. slushy | November 27, 2014 at 5:10 pm

    This is my first time pay a visit at here and i am truly pleassant
    to read everthing at one place.

  11. .mikey d | January 20, 2015 at 4:33 am

    I have read the comments on PMS colors. I have been in the graphic arts for more than 45 years. What it really comes Down to IS 4/c printing is actually 3/c plus black. If you put equal densities of cyan magenta and yellow you will end up with a will end up with a neutral
    gray.increasing any of the lithography colors will give you a different hue. When prepress makes a set of 4/c plates, they scan the supplied artwork and color separate the 3 basic colors and put the colors into dots. Each color is given a different dot angle which overlaps the rest of the colors, cyan and magenta together end up to be what I was taught in grade school to be RED. Yellow and cyan will end up BLUE! So the 3/c will give you any color that is in the spectrum! Now get this, black is not a color, it is a tone that change’s the contrast of a printed piece. The more K the more contrast. Less K will give you a more of a pastel color. In photography black is gained by the amount of time that the film is exposed. Basic color explained. I have no idea how digital gets its color. All I know is that the surface of the micro chips will read the whole color spectrum and give you a better quality picture than print. I could go on and on, yet I think you got the picture.

  12. Andrew | January 29, 2015 at 4:00 am

    I am in the electronics industry and am in the process of creating a new control PCB for a power supply.
    I was asked for the “pantone colour” equivalent of the leds that I am using.

    Red, Blue Yellow and White.
    Dominant frequencies for these are
    Red 620 – 635nm
    Blue 463 – 475nm
    Yellow 585 – 595nm
    White 460nm with a typical temperature of 7000K Chromaticity coordinates x/y 0.31/0/.32
    This is also dependent on how hard you drive the chosen LEDS but for this purpose are typical values for the range of leds chosen.

    Your article helps, thanks.




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