CMYK, PMS & RGB… what are you talking about?

… what are you talking about?

When we talk with our clients about these colour systems, we are most often met with a look that says, “I have no idea what you’re talking about!” Knowing the strengths and weaknesses can be the difference between a bright design or a dull design. Let’s take a dive into the world of colour and break down the terms CMYK, PMS & RGB.

Colour for Print


halftone seperation
colour channel seperations

CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black. The majority of the world’s printing is done using this process. CMYK prints tiny dots of these four colours over the top of each other to trick the human eye there is a solid tone and results in a wide range of 16,000 colours. The four colour process allows for a massive cost saving compared to PMS when printing multi coloured designs.

While ISO 12647-2 forms a strict standard for printers to ensure consistency from run-to-run, the main criticism of CMYK compared to PMS or RGB is the lack of richness when it comes to brighter colours (I’m looking at you orange). A side-by-side comparison of CMYK swatches next to a solid PMS book reveals a “flatness” or “muddiness” you can’t miss, so if you need a bright precision colour you have the option to CMYK + PMS to guarantee that special result. 

Pantone Matching System (PMS or Spot Colour)

CMYK, PMS & RGB pantone book

The global standard for professional printing inks, this system designed by the Pantone company uses the same key principle as paint manufacturers enabling the customer to select any colour from their library for precise reproduction time and again. Every PMS colour has a unique number representing with over 1,800 colours in the famous PMS book, ranging from soft pastel to bright shades, as well as metallic and fluorescent hues that are not possible in the CMYK system

However, as PMS requires different plates for each colour, it is only really cost effective for 1 or 2 colours. If its imperative that your colours are spot-on (and you don’t have too many colours), then PMS should be your go-to.

Colour for Digital


CMYK, PMS & RGB gromo

Not hard to work out, RGB stands for Red, Green, & Blue. This three-colour process is for digital design only. Unlike CMYK which blends ink, RGB is based on the principle of blending light. An easy way to think about it is turning each of the three lights on at once gets you bright white light, but when you turn them off you get Black. 

While most monitors will display the colours accurately, keep in mind that every monitor is calibrated a bit differently, so what you see on your screen might not be exactly what someone else sees. As RGB uses light it can produce much brighter colours than print (over 1000 times more!) so keep this in mind when designing your branding. If your main game is digital than you may want to opt for an RGB first palette, but either way you should have an expert advise on selecting colour matches in both PMS and CMYK.


Best Use Guide

  • More than 2 colours or photos
  • Collateral print
  • When budget is concern
  • When colour accuracy is crucial
  • 1 or 2 colour printing
  • All things digital


Not sure if your brand’s colour palette is being used effectively? Contact Volcanic Creative and we will make sure these branding basics are sorted out for you.