Shedding Light on Color

For someone unfamiliar with print industry lingo, all of the jargon related to color can be confusing. What’s CMYK? What about RGB? Why can’t you use RGB for print? And what the heck is Pantone? Like we said, it’s confusing!

Essentially there are two main divisions to color: RGB and CMYK. Pantone is an ultra-specific color guide that spans both RGB and CMYK.


RGB is an acronym for Red, Green, and Blue. This particular color profile is meant for the digital spectrum (TVs, computer monitors, etc.) since each color is a wavelength of light. All three wavelengths have 256 depths, starting at 0 and ending at 255. When combined these depths allow for 16 million color possibilities. Crazy, right?

To get a color, you simply pick the intensity for each wavelength. For example, white in RGB is written as 255, 255, 255, meaning Red depth is 255, Green depth is 255, and Blue depth is 255. On the other end of the spectrum, black is 0, 0, 0, meaning there’s a complete lack of light.

It’s important to note that even though we design our projects in CMYK, you are viewing them on an RGB based screen. Thus, the colors will always be slightly different than what your screen shows. More importantly, the colors will display differently depending on how your screen is calibrated.

RGB appears differently on a screen versus in print because it is a light based color profile.



Where RGB is a color profile based on light, CMYK is based on ink combinations. It stands for Cyan (blue), Magenta, Yellow, and Key (black). In the print world, CMYK can be referred to as full-color printing or 4-color process.

CMYK starts with a base of pure white, unlike RGB, which starts with a black base. Colors are then produced by adding different values of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. Thus when you write out the combination for white in CMYK, it’s written as 0%, 0%, 0%, 0%. Meaning there is no percentage of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, or Black covering the print surface.

Just like screens all show RGB colors a bit differently, printers print CMYK colors different. At our shop, we have solvent, latex, and UV printers. All three print the same color profile differently than the other. It’s not a drastic difference, but it is different.

While RGB is an additive color profile, CMYK is subtractive. In super-sciencey terms, this means the printed color  subtracts or reduces the amount of light reflected from the print surface.


As if RGB and CMYK aren’t confusing enough, we’re going to throw in Pantone colors. Pantone is a system of standardization for colors that bridges all color profiles. Each Pantone color has a CMYK and RGB standard so that the color is the same regardless of whether it’s being printed or viewed on a screen.

Pantone’s catalog has over 1,400 colors. Pantone colors are written as PMS, followed by a color number, and then a C, U, or M. C stands for Coated, U for uncoated, and M for matte. This refers to the print surface.  

You can usually get pretty close to a PMS color when printing in CMYK, but for companies that are sticklers for exact branding, PMS colors are the way to go. Having a PMS spec ensures consistency in your branding no matter where you go or what product’s being made. It is also worth noting that requesting PMS colors often means additional surcharges on your order.

If your head is spinning trying to understand all of this information, your takeaway from this article should be—

All three color modes have their own purposes.


  • If it’s digitally printed, it’s CMYK.
  • If it’s on a screen (computer monitor, TV, phone, etc.) it’s RGB.
  • If it’s screen printed, it’s PMS.
  • PMS colors are the most specific color profiles, and useful for ensuring consistent branding.
  • Your proof on a screen will always look slightly different than the finished product because it’s in a different color profile.