What’s the difference between PMS, CMYK, RGB and HEX?

Think of the Coca Cola® brand. What color do you see? If you’re like most people, you see the color red. Not just any red. Coke red.

Coke spends a fortune maintaining its brand, and color is a big part of it. The Coke red is unwavering in its consistency across all of Coke’s packaging, TV ads, magazine ads, websites, digital ads and in-store merchandising.

Keeping the color right and consistent is not easy. There are thousands of designers, developers and printers working on Coke’s packaging and marketing worldwide; and there are endless varieties of mobile devices, browsers, TVs, and printing methods that carry the coke brand.

While nobody can control the variations inherent in billions of personal mobile devices and computer monitors, there are color types we use that are universal. They can also be broken down into two very important distinctions that if correctly applied, can go a long way in maintaining color consistency.

Print and Onscreen

PMS, CMYK, RGB and HEX — anyone who works on a computer will have seen these terms used to describe color types, but many people don’t understand what they are, how they’re used and what the difference is between them.

There are two basic categories of color types: print and onscreen. Color on the printed page is subtractive, while color onscreen is additive (more on this later). For now, it’s important to understand that the digital and print mediums render color very differently from one another. You don’t use PMS colors on a website just like you don’t use RGB colors on a printing press.

Four of the most popular color types that we’re going to discuss — PMS, CMYK, RGB and Hex — all fall into one of the two basic categories. PMS and CMYK are for print. RGB and HEX are for onscreen.

Now we’ll drill down a little deeper, look at each color type individually, and explain what it is and how it’s used.

PMS (Pantone® Matching System)

Use: Printing
For offset printing only. Ideal for stationery. Often used in one or two-color jobs. Also used as spot colors on premium brochures in addition to four-color process.

PMS colors (also called Pantone® colors) are patented, standardized color inks made by the Pantone company. Pantone has been around for over 50 years and is responsible for the creation of the first comprehensive standardized system of creating and matching colors in the graphic community. They literally wrote the book on it.

Each of the 1,755 solid PMS colors in their Formula Guide is a Pantone proprietary blend and is sold to printers either premixed or as a formula that printers mix on their premises.

PMS-color-swatches-R2

Designers use the color swatches produced exclusively by Pantone to pick the colors, and printers refer to the same swatches. This ensures everyone works to the exact same PMS color no matter where they are.

This standardization means most businesses and organizations use PMS colors for their branding, especially logos, to ensure the strictest color consistency across different print products and across the globe.

In the past few years, Pantone has been expanding its color matching system to fashion, plastics, home and lifestyle products.

CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black)

Use: Printing
Use in offset and digital printing. Ideal for full-color brochures, flyers, posters and post cards, etc.

CMYK-color-swatches-R

CMYK color (also called four-color process) is actually a method whereby a combination of tiny transparent dots of four ink colors: cyan, magenta, yellow and black are printed. Different combinations of large and small CMYK transparent dots overlap each other to create a wide spectrum of colors.

Whereas a Pantone ink is one solid color throughout, a CMYK color is not. When you look at a CMYK printed piece through a magnifying glass, you can see a pattern of CMYK dots and how they overlap to make the final color.

If you magnify our three cmyk colors, you can see how the dots form the overall color. The cyan, magenta, yellow and black inks absorb colored light, which is why CMYK is a “subtractive” color model.

CMYK-magnified-dots-R

RGB (red, green, blue)

Use: Onscreen

The most commonly used color profile in the world of computers, TV screens and mobile devices is RGB. RGB is the process by which colors are rendered onscreen by using combinations of red, green and blue.

RGB-color-swatches-R

RGB is the opposite of CMYK because it is an “additive” process. When you mix fully saturated versions of all three colors (red, green and blue) together, you get pure white. When you remove all three colors completely, you get black.

RGB is specific to digital applications only. This includes mobile devices, computer monitors, laptops, TV and movie screens, games and illuminated signs.

You often hear of people who design something onscreen in RGB and then get disappointed when the finished printed piece is less vibrant. RGB colors appear vibrant because they are illuminated and there is a larger range in color gamut than what you’d get on the printed page.

HEX (hexadecimal color)

Use: Onscreen for websites

HEX-color-swatches-R

Designers and developers use HEX colors in web design. A HEX color is expressed as a six-digit combination of numbers and letters defined by its mix of red, green and blue (RGB). Basically, a HEX color code is shorthand for its RGB values with a little conversion gymnastics in between.

No need to sweat the conversion. There are plenty of free conversion tools online. Simply search, “RGB to HEX” to find one you’re comfortable with.

 

Making the conversions between color types

RGB to CMYK

So what if something is produced onscreen in RGB but will need to print? Designers and printers use many tools to transition from one color profile to another. They can do this right in the graphics program they’re working in like Photoshop.

Digital printers often transform clients’ RGB files to CMYK before printing using their own equipment because the conversion is specific to the output device. Every device has a very specific color gamut it works with.

It’s advisable to let the print service provider do the conversion. It is however important to note that there will be a color difference in the finished product. Professional designers know this and keep this in mind when designing so there will be no surprises later.

PMS to CMYK

Whether you’re designing onscreen or converting from a PMS color to CMYK, while your graphics program will to the transition, it is advisable to actually see the final color in print. This can be achieved by using a tool like Pantone’s Color Bridge™.

RGB to HEX

In addition to the color-conversion functionality available in graphic programs like Illustrator and Photoshop, there are a number of websites that calculate RGB to HEX, or you can do the calculation yourself if you’re the adventurous type.

 

Need a quick reference on color types? Here’s a handy graphic to refer to:

PMS-CMYK-RGB-HEX-R2

Neglia Design is a full-service print and digital design company. Contact us for a free consultation on your next project.

by Eva Kiss
Director of Communications,
Neglia Design Inc.

 

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