CMYK vs. RGB vs. PMS

It’s astounding how many designers fail to use colors and images in the proper color space. If you’re designing for things on screen, such as a website, TV commercial, or PowerPoint, use RGB. If you’re designing something that is to be printed, use CMYK and PMS colors. I’ll explain why:

How we see color


When you see a red apple, you say it’s red. In fact, it’s every color except red. White light is actually a combination of the whole spectrum of colors. When light shines on an object, that object absorbs certain colors, and reflects others. A red apple absorbs all light but red and reflects that red light back to our eyes.



RGB color space is used for screens because screens emit light. RGB is an additive color space, meaning that you start with a black screen, add variations of red, green and blue light to create colors; when all are combined, the result is white. RGB color space includes more vibrant colors than CMYK because you’re working with light, whereas with CMYK, you’re working with ink.



CMYK works the opposite way. Since CMYK is used while working with ink, the goal is not to emit the light that is to be seen, but to use ink that will absorb light reflected from a white piece of paper. CMYK is a subtractive color space, meaning that you start with a white sheet and by adding variations of cyan, magenta and yellow ink to absorb light, you’re subtracting the types of light waves being reflected back to your eye. When all three colors are combined, all light is absorbed and will appear black. Since black is used so much, although CMY together create black, a separate black ink is included to provide more density, and save ink. CMYK colors are usually less vibrant than RBG colors because rather than using light, you’re using ink to create colors.



PMS stands for Pantone Matching System. Pantone colors are a result of special mixtures of ink. Because printers tend to have shifts in color due to slight differences in calibration, businesses often use Pantone colors for things that absolutely have to be the exact color intended. Usually, Pantone colors are used in logos and company materials that are to match one another. There are 4-color builds for PMS colors, but since PMS colors are mixed with a specific recipe of pigments, attempting to recreate PMS colors with CMYK typically results in a shift in color.

Because cyan, magenta and yellow are combined to create a variety of colors, the inks are transparent. Since PMS colors are intended to stand alone, the inks are opaque. This creates problems when designers attempt to use transparencies with PMS colors. If you want to use transparency effects with a PMS color, you must use the CMYK equivalent of the color rather than the actual PMS color.

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About Mallory MacDermott

Marketing Manager at Printing Partners, Inc. Indianapolis, Indiana.
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