We use color every day in our designs at Jackrabbit.
We need to use color consistently, both to maintain the quality of a brand and to convey our ideas effectively. This means knowing when to use RGB, CMYK, and Pantone colors, and understanding the factors that affect color.
RGB and CMYK are two main color models. RGB is an additive color process, where you start with darkness or absence of light and add red, green, and blue lights to produce a wide range of colors. For example, superimposing red and green light makes yellow; green and blue make cyan; blue and red make magenta. Adding all three together produces white light. This process is similar to how our eyes perceive light. This system is used in computer and television screens, which is why we use it when designing for the web.
CMYK is a subtractive color process, using pigments or ink. Starting from a white background, the layers of ink prevent some light from being reflected, thereby “subtracting” brightness from the white. CMYK stands for the four inks used in color printing: cyan, magenta, yellow, and key (translation: black). Cyan, magenta, and yellow are the primary subtractive colors, while black is added to better produce darker colors. This is why we use CMYK color values when designing for print. Most inkjet, laser, and offset printers rely on CMYK inks.
When to use it: print – particularly digital print jobs or home/office printing where matching a precise brand color is not critical and close is good enough (advertisements in printed magazines, flyers).
Here’s a photo of a green rabbit and how the image would breakdown into the four ink colors.
In addition to CMYK, printing also uses the Pantone Matching System (PMS). This is a standardized color reproduction system, created back in 1963 by Lawrence Herbert. The Pantone system gives designers and printers a common reference point for producing consistent colors.
In 1963, there were 500 PMS colors, each with a three-digit reference number. The color palette grew to 747 colors in 1987, and to 1,012 colors in 1991. Currently there are 1,755 unique colors in the system. These colors are based on mixtures of 14 basic color inks. Their formula guide allows printers to mix these base colors to produce a PMS color. There are Pantone color reference books containing tearable swatches for every PMS color.
PMS colors can be used as inks when doing offset printing (where a plate is created for each ink color). They count as their own ink, so if you do CMYK with a PMS color, you will be paying for five ink colors. However, you can also choose to print with just PMS colors, such as your two corporate colors. This reduces the cost while producing pieces with accurate colors.
When to use it: professional print jobs, when matching an exact color is critical or desired, most commonly on large runs (business cards, letterheads).
Pantone colors are the system of choice for logos and brand guides because they make maintaining color consistency easier. For the logos we design at Jackrabbit, we provide a PMS color value in addition to CMYK and RGB color values.
Color Consistency Challenges
The range of colors available in each color process is different, so sometimes a RGB color doesn’t have an exact CMYK match. There are differences between CMYK and PMS colors as well. We do our best to find solutions so that the design works well in both web and print environments.
As you can see below, RGB colors are more vibrant than CMYK equivalents.
Pantone provides CMYK conversion values for their colors, but sometimes you can’t replicate PMS colors in CMYK perfectly.
PMS Coated and Uncoated
Sometimes PMS colors have a C or U after the number – these stand for Coated or Uncoated. In printing, the appearance of a PMS ink differs depending on the type of paper used. Coated paper has more gloss and absorbs less ink into itself, resulting in richer color. Uncoated papers have a matte finish and tend to absorb the ink, making the colors appear muted in comparison. Most stationery items are printed on uncoated paper.
Because of this difference, when using PMS color swatches on the computer, there are U and C versions to better visualize on screen what the final printed piece would look like.
Color Modes in Software
When we create designs on our computers, we also use the appropriate color modes to match the final environment of the piece.
For print projects, we will design in CMYK (along with PMS colors if appropriate); for web projects, we will design in RGB. Adobe software, such as Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign, allow us to choose between CMYK and RGB modes. Other programs, however, are less flexible. Microsoft Office products like Word and Powerpoint operate exclusively in RGB mode. This is why sometimes printing straight from these programs can result in color shifts in your document.
Color on Devices
There can be slight color variations depending on the device you are using to view the design. Calibration differences in monitors, PC vs Mac, computer vs mobile device – all can affect what you see. Office and home printers also can produce varying results, affected by factors such as inkjet vs toner and software compatibility.
At Jackrabbit, we want to ensure that projects are delivered as promised and that brands remain consistent across web and print collateral. Long story short: there’s a lot more to color than meets the eye!