Pantone, CMYK, RGB and Hexadecimal Colors

A guide to the difference between print and web colors.

Seeing a company’s colors show up inconsistently across their marketing material is not uncommon. The colors on their website don’t match the colors on their signage, their business card colors don’t match their brochure colors, and so on. This is usually a result of the use of different printers for each printed item, the company simply not having a defined color palette, or a designer incorrectly selecting a color format for that specific application.

When you choose to have your company collateral printed or your online media designed, it is important to know the difference between Pantone, CMYK, RGB and Hex colors. So, what are the differences between them and how do you decide the best one for the job at hand? Without going too deep into detail, here is a general overview of the differences between them.

RGB & Hex Code

(Used for screen related items such as website design and mobile app development)

RGB, an acronym for Red, Green and Blue, is a format used to render colors on computer screens. The values range from 0-255, and a combination of these three numbers results in various colors. For example, the blue color on my website is R: 23 G: 104 B: 234. The opposite ends of the spectrum in RGB color are white which is 255-255-255, and black which is 0-0-0. RGB colors are used in digital formats such as web design and digital billboards, but keep in mind what you see on your screen in RGB is not what you will see when it’s printed.

An alternative color system to RGB is hexadecimal or ‘hex code’. This is a # followed by a series of 6 numbers and letters achieving the same color as it’s RGB counterpart. For example the blue color noted above would be #1768ea. For web designers it is a matter of preference on using RGB or hex code, however RGB allows for RGBA use, where the “A” is the Alpha channel, allowing you to control the opacity of a color. An example of this would be if you wanted to use an opaque color overlay on top of your website photos.

CMYK (aka 4-color process)

(Used for commercially printed items such as brochures, business cards and banners)

CMYK is an acronym for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Key (Black). The black plate is called “key” as it is the plate used for definition and detail in the final printed images. In this four color format, printing is done in multiple runs, one color plate at a time. By using different percentages of each color, you create various colors, such as C=0 M=40 Y=100 K=0 yielding a bright orange. You can also use various number combinations to achieve the same color that varies in vibrancy. For example using C=60 M=40 Y=40 K=100 creates a very rich black, while C=0 M=0 Y=0 K=100 yields a flat black.

Digital printing over the years has become a good alternative to printing on a commercial press using CMYK plates. Either RGB or CMYK colors can be used when printing digitally, although I suggest talking to your printer as different levels of printers handle conversion differently. Keep in mind that you can expect variance in color when printing digitally and only the higher end digital printers will produce quality on the same level as a commercial 4-color press.

You may wonder, why would someone choose to print digitally as opposed to 4-color process if plate based printing yields crisper, higher quality printing? It comes down to cost. When printing on a 4-color press it can be more expensive per piece in shorter runs than printing digitally, but less expensive when printing larger runs of jobs.

My general rule of thumb, as far as cost, is that anything you are printing that falls between a quantity of 1-500 is best done digitally. Once you get to numbers over 500 printing on a press may be a better option as far as per piece cost, color consistency and quality. Most local and online print houses will only print quantities of 500 or more on the press, smaller jobs would go to their digital printers.

Some Advice

When it comes time to finalizing your company color palette, I recommend selecting your colors with a pantone swatch book. Even if you never plan to print with pantone, it is the best industry standard foundation to use to calibrate the color values for other formats.

Pantone Matching System (aka Pantone, PMS or spot color)

(Used for precise color matching when printing commercially)

The difference between pantone format and the other formats is that when printing a pantone color, it is done in a single run, using an industry standard color that you can rely on to be accurate. Pantone color format consists of pre-mixed ink colors or ‘spot colors’. This color format produces consistent colors on the final print. It has numerous tones that get you the most accurate color every time. If you wish to ensure that your logo colors or company color palette will print exactly the same each time, you should print using pantone colors.

Each pantone color has a code and colors can be selected from swatch books that display these colors and list the codes for each one. You can view pantone palettes on a computer screen, but please do not rely on this. As I mentioned above, looking at a pantone color on a computer screen is not an accurate representation of how it will print. Only by viewing a swatch book or doing a test run can you see the actual color as it will print. Your local commercial printer will have pantone swatch books on hand as reference.

Another factor to keep in mind is that pantone colors will look different when printed on a matte paper as opposed to glossy paper. Printers will have a coated swatch book and a matte swatch book showing your chosen pantone color on each type of paper. There can be a noticeable difference in the coated version of a pantone number versus the uncoated version. I have had clients in the past use two different pantone numbers to achieve the same relative color on different paper stocks.

Summary

When you need to choose colors for a website and any other digital media, you would use RGB or Hex colors. When printing, use of CMYK color is necessary on a 4-color press, and preferred when printing digitally. Keep in mind using RGB or CMYK colors when printing digitally or on a commercial press can leave room for inconsistency. Variables like using different printers, different types of paper, temperature variations, the ink used, the operators knowledge and other factors can bring various outcomes in how your company colors print.

This leaves us with pantone color, which over the years I have noticed companies avoid using due to cost. Printing with pantone can be pricey compared to CMYK, but like they say you get what you pay for. Although printing has become a very precise process, and printers have gotten very good at color matching CMYK, to get the consistency and vibrancy in your company colors each and every print job, nothing beats pantone.

If you are looking for consistent color on different printed projects, but choose to color match using CMYK, my advice is find a good local printer and stick with them. The more you work with them, the better they will become at consistently matching your brands colors.


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