Understanding Colour Systems

Blog Nutshell Squirrel

The world is a kaleidoscope of colour with endless possibilities, not so true for the print and digital world. When reproducing colour, there are only three major colour systems; PMS, CMYK, and RGB.

  • PMS (Pantone Matching System)
  • CMYK (Cyan Magenta Yellow Black)
  • RGB (Red Green Blue)

Since each colour system uses different hues or varying levels of them to create the final colour you see, exact colour matching is not possible across all three systems.

For example, the simulation below shows how the colour blue can vary in tone when it is produced using either a PMS, CMYK or RGB process.

Blog Nutshell Colour Differences

In addition to these processes, other things such as substrates (ie. vinyl or fabric) will also cause variances. For example, the thread colour used to embroider your logo onto a shirt or the vinyl used for your vehicle graphics, will not be an exact match to your existing materials.

Colour Systems Defined & When They’re Used

PMS Colour (Pantone or spot colour)

Blog Nutshell Pantone

Think of Pantone inks as being similar to house paint. They are pre-mixed colours and can be selected from a specially printed book that shows exactly how the colour will reproduce. It is mostly used for printing. Menus, letterhead, brochures, business cards, and folders are a few examples of material that can be printed using the PMS colour system.

The Pantone Matching System is a series of paint chips (identified by number) that are universally accepted throughout the design community. There is a book of Pantone Colours in every art studio and it is usually referred to when designing company or product logos (and corporate brand standards) so colour consistency can be maintained every time a graphic is reproduced, no matter where it is printed.

Pantone is also the only colour system that offers an assortment of metallic and fluorescent colours (as these cannot be reproduced using CMYK values).

CMYK Colour

Blog Nutshell Cmyk

CMYK is commonly known as 4-colour process and is mostly used for printing. Magazines, newspapers, menus, brochures, folders and packaging are just a few examples of material that can be printed using the CMYK colour system.

RGB Colour

Blog Nutshell Rgb

Anything that is viewed on-screen (ie. TV, computer monitors) is generated through RGB colour. Light is reflected through a Red Green Blue colour palette that renders the objects in full colour on-screen. Blacks are rendered using a heavy percentage of RGB mixed together.

With so many factors affecting colour reproduction, there will always be variances beyond your control. Your best approach to managing this is selecting a colour system or substrate that is going to produce the colour as close as possible to your existing materials or PMS tone.

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