RGB vs. PMS vs. CMYK

Print, printing, blog, bloggins


Sounds like a battle between three airports, doesn’t it? Or maybe the ultimate smackdown in a futuristic ring?

In reality, these are the three systems used in matching colors when designing a web site or print materials.

What do you mean, matching colors? I learned my colors when I was five. Red is red, blue is blue, and purple is purple.

You are correct. Remember when you were just a child coloring a picture. You realized that you didn’t have a red crayon, so you asked your friend if you could borrow theirs. Unless your friend was using it, he or she would hand you their red crayon. Their red and your red matched because you were using the same system of color matching.

Nowadays, there are different systems of color matching, which explains why an image on your computer might look different when it’s printed, or why two computer monitors might show the same image with slight differences in the colors.

Speaking of computer monitors, let’s start with the system used for those. It’s called the RGB (Red, Green, Blue) System.


RGB, RGB colors


The RGB System is used for computer monitors, videos, games, websites, etc… Also called “Web Safe Colors,” the RGB System has 216 colors that display on computer monitors.

But keep in mind, even though they’re called “safe” colors, they still might appear a little different between monitors. Screen brightness, the lighting in the room, and color setting on your monitor might cause a little variation from screen to screen.

Now let’s move on to the second system: the PMS System.


Pantone Colors


The Pantone Matching System is a series of thousands of numbered colors. It’s the exact same thing as going into a home improvement store and looking at paint swatches. You find the perfect color for your dining room, you take the swatch to the counter, and the color is mixed for you.

The PMS System is commonly used for corporate logos, business cards, or other images that only contain a few colors.

You can check out Pantone’s full line of colors Here.

And now the big, bad CMYK System. CMYK is also referred to as “Four Color Process.”




This system is best used when a photo or other project has multiple colors needs to be printed. Every shade and color is possible with the CMYK System.

The process determines the exact percentage of four colors needed to make your desired color. The four colors are: Blue, Magenta, Yellow, and Black.

So why is the acronym CMYK? I get “M” for Magenta and “Y” for Yellow, what’s up with the “C” and the “K?”

To avoid confusion between blue and black both starting with “B”, Blue is called “Cyan” (a greenish-blue mix) and Black is referred to by a “K.” (That dates back to the old days when plates were used for printing. The black plate was also called the key plate, which held all of the artistic details.)

The CMYK process uses percentages of each of these four colors to make tiny  dots that your eyes and brain blend together to see the full spectrum of color.

Remember when you were a kid and your parents had the old-school tube style TV? If you ever put your eyes up really close to the screen (you know you did) and saw thousands of dots that made the big picture? It’s the same process going on here.

So, a quick review:

RGB: Online and video only.

PMS: One or two colors, perfect for a logo or business card where only a few colors are used.

CMYK: Printing photos or material with “full color” needed.

If you have any questions, we’d be glad to answer them. Please feel free to email us right here.

By the way, this is Pantone’s Color of the Year for 2014: Radiant Orchid


Pantone Color of the Year

(Pantone™ 18-3224.)





Sources: visiblelogic.com, pantone.com, bing.com