CMYK vs RGB vs Pantone for Business

So you’ve spent hours banging your head against the wall trying to figure out a design software program and you’ve finally managed to send it off to the printers. You sigh in relief knowing that that’s over… only to have the printer send it back to you saying it’s in RGB vs CMYK. They say they can convert it for you, but it’s going to cost extra (of course). Or they ask do you want it in PMS instead.

Does this scenario sound familiar?

Don’t worry you’re not alone.


Every industry has lingo and the design industry isn’t any different. CMYK, RGB, PMS, and Pantone are all just industry lingo for different ways to handle color to make sure what you want to see is what you get. Here is a quick overview to basics of what you need to know for your business.

How colors work

Issac Newton observed that color is not inherent in objects. Rather, the surface of an object reflects some colors and absorbs all the others. What we “see” is actually only the reflected colors.

Take an apple for example. The red of an apple is not actually “in” an apple. The surface of the apple is reflecting the wavelengths we see as red and absorbing all the rest. Mind blowing, isn’t it?!?

“Neat,” you say, “how does this help me fix my file?”

RGB or Red, Green, Blue

Red, green and blue are the additive primary colors of the color spectrum. Combining balanced amounts of red, green and blue lights also produces pure white. By varying the amount of red, green and blue light, all of the colors in the visible spectrum can be produced.

Therefore, 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. Basically, black + color = white. RGB color space includes more vibrant colors than CMYK because you’re working with light, whereas with CMYK, you’re working with ink. It’s important to note that with screens, since light is emitted all of the time, what you perceive as black isn’t actually pure black since black is actually the absence of light.

You want to use RGB for:

  • Social media images
  • Website graphics and photographs
  • Computer presentations
  • Graphics for TV
  • Basically anything that’s going to be seen primarily on a computer or tv screen

CMYK or Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black

CMYK works the opposite way from RGB because it uses inks to create color combinations instead of beams of light. Therefore, the CMYK color space is used for print products because it uses ink to create color combination. The goal with ink 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. Basically, white + color = black. 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 (color ink is usually more expensive). CMYK colors are usually less vibrant than RBG colors because rather than using light, you’re using ink to create colors.

You want to use CMYK for:

  • Basic print products
  • Brochures, postcards, and handouts
  • Posters
  • Print photography

PMS or Pantone Matching System

 Now sometimes, you want to make sure that all of your printed products match EXACTLY. A likely scenario would be getting a booth made for a trade show. You want to get printed booth backgrounds made with matching tablecloths and signs. Of course you’ll be handing out bags with your logo on it with your business card along with some swag while wearing a t-shirt with your company logo. The problem is how do you make sure that all of the materials that you are sending to various printers match? Everyone’s printer is calibrated differently so the same file will have slight variations in color if you print it across multiple machines. The Pantone system eliminates this issue.

Pantone colors are a result of special mixtures of ink. Instead of using a printer with four different inks that when mixed together give you a certain color, Pantone already mixed the colors for you. So instead of having a printer mix red and yellow to make orange, Pantone just gives you an orange ink. Your printer will just spot print that Pantone color into that one area where you need the orange ink. This is why people use Pantone for when colors have to match exactly.

Just like house paints have printed color swatches on paper, Pantone offers a fan set that shows the colors of ink that you can purchase. They also have the same for metallic ink, neon and pastel inks, home fabrics, and more. It’s important to note that since you are using special ink and a different printing system, that Pantone colors will cost you much more to print… so use it only when you need it.

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. This is easy to find on the color bridge fan set where each Pantone color has the corresponding CMYK, RGB, and HEX values listed.

You want to use Pantone for:

  • Colors that need to match exactly
  • Logos
  • Banners
  • Swag
  • Printed items where there is just white and this color


I hope this article was helpful for you. As always, please feel to contact me if you ever run into any more questions.


Further Reading:

How to convert RGB to CMYK in Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign

Diving further into the difference between RGB, CMYK, and PMS

How we see color

Spot vs. Process Color

Intro to Color Theory


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