What Is the Difference Between RGB, CMYK and Pantone Colors?
At BatesMeron we work with a lot of clients who rely on us to not only design creative work but also complete their printing needs. We use our knowledge of the different color modes to ensure that their printed pieces turn out perfectly.
Now, we’re fully aware that we are “color nerds,” and we don’t expect everyone else to be as informed as we are. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s not helpful to learn about the differences between the color modes yourself. For example, we’ve had clients who wanted to get some “swag” printed (i.e., hats and t-shirts) and decided to take on the task alone. However, they weren’t educated on what color mode was right for the job— and needless to say, the colors did not match any of their other printed pieces. Kind of an expensive life lesson. Sidenote: clients, you are our homies. Even if you’re handling printing a promo item yourself, you can always call us to make sure everything is set up right!
So to make sure you don’t get caught with your color mode pants down, you can either trust the experts or invest a little bit of time into learning about color and how it’s used. If you’re into the learning idea, consider this blog post your introduction to the exciting world of RGB, CMYK and Pantone.
Regardless of the platform you would like your design to be viewed on, the first step to color mode mastery is a clear understanding of the three color modes—RGB, CMYK and Pantone—that are used universally on a daily basis. If you are already knowledgeable about these color modes then this is not for you, but if you resemble a deer in headlights when asked if you know the difference then you’re in luck. In this post I will break them each down for you so you can hopefully gain a better understanding—and at your next dinner party you can wow your friends with your new knowledge.
RGB stands for Red, Green and Blue. As a general rule, RGB is associated with screens, such as your computer or television/projectors, digital cameras and scanners. All of these screens produce images using different color combinations of red, green and blue. In RGB mode, white is the sum of all three colors whereas black is the absence of all three colors. (See image below for a better explanation).
Any image that is optimized for a computer screen uses the RGB color mode and many computer graphics applications default to the RGB color space. For example, website graphics should always be RGB. Because desktop printers mix color using CMYK, you can sometimes get an unexpected or bad print job from an RGB image.
CMYK is also sometimes referred to as four-color process printing. CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black, or “K” to avoid any confusion with the color Blue. In general, CMYK is the type of color that you find on most printed materials like magazines, newspapers and brochures. As mentioned above, CMYK is what a majority of home printers and commercial printers use. For the most part, CMYK reproduces quality images but there are some colors that don’t print very well in this mode. (This is because the range of colors that CMYK can reproduce is not as wide as that of RGB colors.)
As a result, certain intense values of color such as blue, green, orange (especially) and other bright colors that you see on your screen may sometimes appear to be dull or even dirty when they are printed. This is why sometimes the color of your designs displayed on a computer screen may not match what is actually printed. If you want to print very bright colors, metallic colors or other special effects colors, I suggest that you use Pantone colors.
Pantone colors, also known as spot colors, are used by professional print shops around the world. They are a set of universal colors created by the printing industry in order to help designers, print shops and customers get an exact idea of what a color will look like when printed. Pantone colors are pre-mixed colors with specific color formulas. Every Pantone color can be found in a Pantone swatch book (see below) and each color has a corresponding number to it (i.e., Pantone 280, usually followed by a “C” or a “U” meaning coated or uncoated, but we will save that for another time).
Branding is one of the key reasons to use the Pantone color mode. For example, the light medium (or robin egg) blue color associated with Tiffany & Co. was first used on the cover of Tiffany’s Blue Book published in 1845. Thereafter, Tiffany & Co. has been using that color exclusively on their promotional pieces. Tiffany & Co. went as far as making it a private Pantone custom color with its own trademark, unavailable publicly or in Pantone swatch books.
Pantone colors are also useful because they are precise and you know exactly what color you are going to get. They are used to help eliminate complications and disappointments when a job goes to print. However, printing with Pantone colors is more expensive than printing in CMYK so ask yourself before printing, “Can this be reproduced closely in CMYK?” If the answer’s yes, then I suggest going that route and saving a little money in the process. Great strides have been made in CMYK recently, so you can often get a good print.
With most creative software programs like Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign and Quark Xpress, you can convert images from RGB to CMYK and vice versa. But if you want to convert solid colors, you should use a conversion chart where the CMYK, RGB and Web formulas are shown on a swatch chip. This process is the only accurate way to successfully convert solid colors without any hiccups—and it’s why we recommend graphic standards, so you have a quick reference guide to your brand’s formulas. If you are ever unsure, it is always best to bring your original files to a printer or your design firm.
Hopefully after reading this, you feel more comfortable with the differences between color modes, and you can start brushing up on your Pantone jokes for that dinner party. Like this one: “Your momma is so dumb, she thinks Pantone is a shampoo.”
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