CMYK, RGB and Pantone Colors: Differences and Usage

CMYK, RGB and Pantone color models. Laptop, printer and color swatches

CMYK, RGB and Pantone color (also called PMS) are abbreviations common in the printing world and often heard in the print design industry. To an untrained ear, they sound unfamiliar, but the thing is that in any type of business, there is a kind of language distinct to each one known as jargon. Such is the case in print design where the said color descriptions are often used, but they sound like gibberish to an ordinary man.

What do the acronyms stand for and why are they important? They have something to do with making sure designs look the way they should, once at the final stage. A range of media is often offered when a logo design, for instance, is requested. Typically, sizes and file types are discussed, including these color formats.

The Color Format CMYK

Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Key, or the color Black, are the four colors applied to the printing process involving CMYK. With these colors, an assortment of hues may be created. Black is called Key being exactly that – key. It is the primary color that defines the final image’s details and contrast in the CMYK printing format.

Designs using the CMYK print folders are generally done on white background which helps avoid color discrepancies. The tone differences will depend on ink density. A very slight unnoticeable color inconsistency may still occur during the printing process, as it is the time when CMYK colors are mixed.

CMYK color model

The RGB Color Profile

This profile known as “screen format” is an intriguing but exciting process in digital design, where no actual canvas is utilized. The projection is done against a screen to blend not inks, but lights, using the colors in the RGB wheel, namely: Red, Green and Blue. These are the same colors used in the screens of mobile devices, cameras, televisions and computer monitors. Note that no two monitors are calibrated exactly alike, so there may be slight differences in colors on two different screens. However, in the digital world, RGB is the choice.

The higher the intensity of the three color combination, the lighter the tones. Black is produced by reduced light against a darkened screen with the absence of the RGB colors, as opposed to CMYK or Pantone, where white is often represented by the absence of colors.

RGB color model

A Look at Pantone Colors

This is the printing world’s primary color matching system, Pantone or PMS for Pantone Matching System – the “spot color”. Its process of creating colors with pre-mixed ink prior to image creation gives the most accurate results compared to the CMYK or the RGB color models.

Using this color format may be costlier, but with Pantone, you can be sure of the following:

  1. Accurate color match.
  2. Eliminates discrepancies between digital design and finished printed product.
  3. Recognized by many industries worldwide when it comes to custom inks creation.
  4. A controlled-ink system, Pantone colors make an excellent choice for exact color printing in an assortment of printed media.

As a pre-mixed color format, only a color at a time must be applied to ensure the best result. For print designs using Pantone, a maximum of 3 colors would be ideal to reduce the risks of cracked inks.

Pantone color model

The Uses of CMYK, RGB and Pantone

  • For full color printing or full color photography, CMYK color has the widest range of colors that provide the most accurate printed result. It makes a perfect choice for any printing design that would use 4 or more colors.
  • RGB colors are best for digital designs or any designs for the web. Otherwise, designs created in this format should be converted to either Pantone or CMYK prior to printing.
  • Pantone helps create accurate brand coloring like logos. It is also best for single-color designs because the format produces a rich color tone. The spot printing capability of Pantone colors may also be used to adjust color limitations when using CMYK for metallic, neon, orange, grey or navy blue colors.

The design and print industry wants to make sure that everything looks good across all media, hence the use of these three different color standards. To pick the right one, all you need to do is think about where you will be using the graphics you create. By choosing the right color format, you ensure the colors will be as consistent and accurate as possible.