Understanding Color Jargon

Understanding Color Jargon

by Karyn Insler, May 19, 2015

RGB vs CMYK vs PMS: What’s the Difference?

You’ve probably heard the terms RGB, CMYK, and PMS in relation to color for print or web, but you may not know what each acronym stands for—or, more importantly, why you should care. However, if you want your final design to look the way you intend, it’s important to have at least a basic understanding of the difference between these common color profiles.

Breaking it Down

Simply put, RGB stands for Red, Green, and Blue – the most dominant of the colors in the visual spectrum in the form of light energy. RGB is used exclusively in digital design for electronic display purposes such as TVs, computer monitors, mobile devices, etc. Rather than using ink, the RGB color spectrum is created by blending light itself.

CMYK, on the other hand, stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black (K is used for black so as not to confuse it with Cyan) – the four ink colors used for printing purposes. Combinations of these ink colors allow for the reproduction of thousands of colors. It’s often referred to as a four-color process due to the fact it utilizes four different colored inks to create an array of hues.

The main issue with commercial printing is that RGB colors do not correspond exactly with CMYK, so it’s possible to can see colors on your monitor that cannot be reproduced in print. That’s where PMS comes in.

PMS stands for the Pantone Matching System, which is a universal color matching system using premixed inks referred to as “spot” colors to correct the limitations of CMYK printing. This color profile is used to ensure an accurate color match every time and eliminates discrepancies between your digital design and the final, printed product.

Wrapping it Up

To summarize, RGB is used only for digital designs. In fact, any design created with an RGB color profile must be converted to CMYK or PMS colors before printing. As a rule of thumb, you should only use RGB when designing for the web. CMYK can create a wide range of colors, so it’s used primarily for full-color printing. It provides the greatest amount of accuracy when printing designs that contain color photography. In fact, CMYK should be your first choice of printing methods for any design that utilizes four or more colors. PMS colors should be used when a perfect color match is required for consistency, such as with recognizable brand elements and logos.