When it comes to colour, designers have to cater the colours they use to the type of work they are creating. It’s helpful to understand the differences, so that when you are working with designers you can know what is and isn’t possible. For instance, did you know that your black might not really be black? And that is is rarely possible to achieve a bright CMYK orange? In this blog post, I will explain to you each type of colour format, what they are and how they work, so that you can plan for some stunning design work for yourself or your business!

CMYK (print process)

Colour CYMK

What is it?
CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and “Key colour” (black). The colour format is made up of percentages of each colour, such as this formula for “True Black”; C75 M68 Y67 K90 (see further down for more on black!)

What is it for?
Designers will produce anything designed for print using CMYK colour.

How does it work?
CMYK work is designed specifically for printing presses that use “plates”. Professional printers reproduce the work on the chosen material by layering ink from colour plates coated in Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black. The result is a tightly woven matrix of coloured dots that blend to the naked eye to create the colours you see. CMYK can be used in digital printing, too.

CMYK process is known as a “subtractive process”. This means the more ink you add, the closer to black you get.

Considerations for CMYK work
It is very hard to produce a bright orange colour in CMYK due to the colour layering needed.
If you are using a lot of blue in your design, the print job may take slightly longer as blue saturates the paper more, causing a longer drying time.

RGB (digital colour format)

Colour RGB

What is it?
RGB stands for Red, Green, Blue. The colour format is made up of three numbers representing each such as this formula for white: RGB(255, 255, 255).

What is it for?
Designers use RGB colours for digital artwork intended for screens.

How does it work?
RGB is known as an “additive process”, which means the more of each colour you add, the closer you get to white. RGB uses a larger gamut than CMYK, meaning there is a larger range of achievable colours. The range allows for brighter colours and subtler steps through the tones and highlights of a colour, giving smoother gradients.

Considerations for RGB work
Don’t send RBG files to professional printers; the end result will not be as expected and the printer may charge you if they have to convert files to CMYK.
Because RGB colours are lit up by the screen they are viewed on, they can appear a little different if you print anything at home as the light is removed – useful to remember when printing digital downloads!

Pantone (aka. Spot colour)

Colour pantone

What is it?
Pantone colour (sometimes referred to as Spot Colour) is a standardised, universal colour system with an official mixing system of 13 base pigments. The colours can be reproduced consistently anywhere following the defined mixing quantities.

What is it for?
Pantone colours can be used for any print job, but are brilliant for brand. It’s a good idea for your business logo to have a Pantone colour reference for its colour, so that you can reproduce it consistently. Some printers may also request files are created with embedded “spot colours”, and you should pass this information on to your designer if you have made enquiries for print before briefing them.

How does it work?
Pantone colour books are an industry mixing guide for pigments. Trained colour mixers will follow the book guide to mix up colour pigments so that Cool Grey is Cool Grey wherever you are printing around the world.

Considerations for Pantone work
Pantone colours are selected from a pre-defined library.
Most Pantone colours are out of the capabilities of the CMYK gamut and converting Pantone to CMYK may have unexpected results.
Pantone colours can change appearance depending on the material they are printed on. Pantone provide “colour books” on coated and un-coated paper stock for designers to make informed colour choices from

Hexidecimal (web colour format)

Colour hex
What is it?
Hexadecimal (hex) colours are defined by a hashtag and a combination of 6 numbers and letters such as #fefefe. They are colours that can be used across the web.

What is it for?
Designers use Hex colours to set colour styling in web pages and in SVG image files.

How does it work?
The hex codes are placed into the CSS Stylesheets and HTML code of a webpage, and are converted as colour outputs when published.

Considerations for Hex work
As with RGB, hex colours are “lit” by the screen they are viewed on, and will appear brighter on screen than when printed. 

100% Black vs True black

Just a little something to be aware of: to get the blackest black possible in CMYK, it is not the logical C0 M0 Y0 K100 (known as 100% Black). You actually need a special mix of inks known as True Black. The formula for True Black is; C75 M68 Y67 K90. The graphic below demonstrates the subtle difference.

True black

I hope that has helped you understand the technicalities of colour format a little more! If you would like to know more about colour, I will shortly be writing a post on Colour Theory so keep your eyes peeled!


About the Author:
Emma is a Graphic Designer and Illustrator living in Bristol, UK. Her illustration work explores a thin line between creepy and cute; working with kawaii motifs, galactic colours and quirky themes to create unique and fun designs.
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Colour explained: CMYK, RGB, Pantone, Hex