Colour types explained


Have you ever printed something out and noticed that the colours aren’t quite right? That’s probably due to the colour-mode that you’ve used to print.

CMKY, Pantone, and RGB are all colour types that have specific uses. Learning more about these colour modes can help when picking out the right colour palette for your website, brochure or anything you’re designing.

Printing and on-screen

Understanding the reasons behind colours for printing and on-screen can be helpful for designing effectively.

There are three main colour types (RGB, CMYK and Pantone). Colour that is printed onto a page is subtractive whilst colour on-screen is additive.

RGB is used for on-screen, and Pantone and CMYK are often used for print. For example, if you’re swapping them around or using them incorrectly, this might just why your printed flyer looks different from the on-screen version.

Different colour types


What is CMYK?

CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Key. This essentially looks like blue (cyan), pink (magenta), yellow (yellow) and black (key).

This mode uses tiny dots that overlap to create a wide spectrum of colour. The CMYK colours absorb the coloured light and leave behind the colour you want.

CMYK is only really used for print and often doesn’t look as vibrant on-screen. The more colour added to CMYK, the darker the result and therefore, if you take away the colour, it becomes lighter — this means CMYK uses subtractive colours.

Use of CMYK in printing

WSG Print are a Newcastle printing company that can select pre-existing colours or bespoke colours using CMYK, they mention that:

“Creating a document in CMYK for print will give you a better chance of achieving a good standard of a printed product.”
— WSG Print

There are ways to use other types of colour modes for printing, however, they do come at a cost. Pantone colours, also known as spot colours, are specially formulated into one block of colour. Using Pantone colours for printing means using litho printing which is expensive and may not be cost-effective in the longer term.

Use of CMYK in design

Considering colour modes is so important in design. If your company has products that contain packaging or other printed material, it might not be a good idea to go outside the CMYK range.

RGB offers a wide range of colour and vibrancy that won’t translate well to CMYK colours when printed. Even the K (black) is a combination of cyan, magenta and yellow and is included in the colour mode because it is not a true black.

It is very hard to create true black, even with a pure combination of cyan, magenta and yellow. However, printing black in CMYK will look effective and dark enough to be perceived as black.


RGB is used for on-screen use and has a vibrant spectrum. It is an acronym of Red, Green and Blue which are colour systems used on all devices and screens.

Unlike CMYK, the RGB colour system is an additive colour-mode, because when Red, Green and Blue are combined, they can make just about all the colours we see through the human eye.

RGB starts with black and then colours are added to the black to make it brighter, the opposite of CMYK. Combining colours makes lighter, the reverse effect of CMYK.

Use of RBG in design

If you’re a company that is purely digital, it shouldn’t hurt too much having a purely RGB colour palette on your digital assets. This way, you can access a wide range of vibrant colours to really stand out.


Pantone swatches

Pantone (often referred to as the Pantone Matching System) uses neither an additive nor subtractive method for creating colour. Instead, Pantone uses specially formulated inks that have a unique colour

Therefore, this is a more expensive and bespoke way of printing, however, does achieve a closer result to RGB when printing (vibrancy wise).

Using Pantone means that the printer needs to be prepared for each print job, which then means it’s harder to print in bulk. Printing with Pantone isn’t as cost-effective due to these reasons.

Use of PMS in design

Pantone has helped many brands gain recognition through iconic colours that translate brilliantly both on-screen and in print.

Pantone colours are also much better at accurately matching colours on-screen to develop into printable assets.

This solution for printing can be ideal for companies with a large-scale printing operation, as it really creates a unique brand-focused colour that is recognisable and not as dull as how CMYK can be

For example, Tiffany & Co. use PMS-1837 (often referred to as Tiffany Blue), which is the colour that they are instantly recognised for, without any wording/logo even being present. Their Tiffany Blue colour was custom designed by Pantone and has been copyright of Tiffany & Co. since 1998.

For large companies similar to Tiffany & Co., consistency is key and helps establish a strong brand.

Finding a middle-ground for which colour system to use

Companies may need to use a mixture of digital and print to achieve the brand and look they desire.

The best thing to do is to choose colours that offer the best result for all outputs you may need, but also look great in RGB. However, this can be limiting and may not achieve the best results.

There is also the option to create variations for web and print, as this would mean creating alternative colours for both print and digital separately. The colours don’t need to be completely different, however, translate well to their desired use.

Using this method could ensure that you have a strong brand on-screen and off-screen, whilst not limiting your brand’s colours.

Colour is essential to design, and designing with the right information makes it a lot easier and cost-effective.

Posted on 18th Mar 2021