Lady holding colour charts

RGB, CMYK, PMS … Um, WTF?! Trying to figure out confusing design lingo? I’ve got you covered with a go-to guide to understanding the difference between colour formats.

Read time: Five mins

Wondering why your brand or surface pattern designer insists on throwing random letters at you … and kinda curious why the Village People’s YMCA’s dancing CMYK cousin is in there? Let’s talk colour formats and why they’re so important for you to know as a potential brand or surface pattern design client.

Why you should care about colour formats

Okay, so you’ve mastered the basics of brand patterns, navigated surface pattern design and art licensing and know exactly what you need before you work with a surface designer or illustrator. High-five! You’re on a roll.

But there’s still one mystery to solve: The case of WTF RBG, CYMK, PMS AND HEX colour formats are!

The good news? Once you wrap your mind around all those random letters, colour formats are actually super easy to understand (and your knowledge of them will totally impress your surface pattern and brand designer 😉).

But even more than that, knowing the difference between colour formats and how they’re used will ensure you’re using the same colours consistently across all your designs.

‘Cause that pretty purple or dreamy blue that makes your branding pop? For your branding to succeed, it has to look the same everywhere.

Which is why each colour format has its own special language. These languages – or colour formats – are universal. So no matter which designer picks up your brand, as long as they have the correct colour formats, they can apply and maintain consistent branding for you. Hurrah!


But why are there different colour languages? 

Basically, it comes down to how your design is being used. Your design will need to be set up differently depending on whether it’s being used on-screen (digital) or off-screen (print).

This is why your designer will ask how your job is being printed/used before they even start drawing and designing. This will help your designer supply your final artwork correctly because they’ll know how many colours they can use and if there are any restrictions when it comes to the finer details.

For example, you won’t be able to use RBG for a print project or PMS (which is definitely a colour code and not just hormones running rampant, btw) on a website.

This is because printed colours are subtractive while digital colours are additive. Who’d have thought there’d be math in colours, right? Don’t worry, it’s not something you’ll be quizzed on. Simply knowing the basics of what each colour format is and how it’s used will be enough for a successful design project and consistent visual branding.

Now let’s get into the nitty grittys of what each colour format is and does.

PMS (Pantone® Matching System)

Used: Off-screen (screen printing and offset printing)

The low-down: Well, Pantone is basically the Anna Wintour of print colours formats. They’ve developed a comprehensive collection of patented, standardised colour inks stocked by printers and showcased on swatches. Heard of Pantone’s Colour of the Year? Yep, they’re kind of a big deal. And if you’re curious, 2022’s colour was Very Peri.

How it works:

  • A designer will choose a colour based off a Pantone swatch, and then the printer will grab a pot of that premixed colour off the shelf and load it onto the press or screen.
  • This keeps things super consistent no matter where your job is printed. The only thing that may affect the colour is the sort of paper/fabric/product you are printing onto.
  • Due to set up costs, this can be a more expensive way of printing. The more PMS colours you use in a design, the more expensive the job will be to print.
  • You’d generally only use PMS if the job is one to three colours and only if you’re printing really large quantities. If you have more than four colours, you’d be better off printing in CMYK.

CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black)

Used: Off-screen (offset printing and digital printing)

The low-down: Remember how I mentioned printed colours are subtractive? CMYK is a perfect example of this.

Unlike Pantone ink (which is one solid colour), a CYMK colour is actually comprised of a pattern of transparent, overlapped dots in the four ink colours (cyan, magenta, yellow and black). These dots absorbcoloured light, which is why it’s a subtractive colour model.

How it works:

  • CMYK can be used on printing presses or digital printers.
  • The finished result generally isn’t as vibrant as RGB colours because there are fewer options for print colours.
  • Since machine and press calibration paired with the quality and material of paper all play a role in the finished result, you may see some slight colour variation.
  • A machine or press that isn’t well maintained or uses poor quality ink will give a less accurate result (so make sure you choose a reliable printer!)

RGB (Red, Green, Blue)/HEX (Hexadecimal)

Used: On-screen (RGB is digital only with HEX used on websites only)

The low-down: Let’s take it back online with the colour format language of the digital realm: RGB. Unlike CMYK, RGB is an additive colour model and renders colours on-screen by mixing combinations of red, green and blue.

How it works:

  • RGB is ace online but will suck for off-screen purposes because it only appears vibrant when it’s illuminated by a screen. There are also more colour options on-screen than off-screen.
  • HEX (don’t worry, I don’t forget this one!) is simply a translation of RGB used by designers and developers for web design.
  • Your designer can translate RBG into a more print-friendly colour format, but typically your print service provider will handle the colour conversion (which is for the best since every tool and device is unique). Even still, there will still be a colour difference in RGB compared to a printed PMS or CMYK.


CMYK colour format
RGB colour format

So … which colour format do I need?

Basically, it depends on your design project. If you’re working on an offline project, you’ll want either PMS or CMYK. If your design project will be featured digitally, you’ll want RBG and possibly HEX if it’s on your website.

For my logo and brand design clients, I supply their files in PMS, CMYK AND RGB so they have everything they could possibly need to use and love their brand across all channels. I also give them the PMS, CMYK, RGB and HEX codes so they can use the same colours consistently throughout all their designs. Yep, I like to cover all bases!

Want to continue levelling up your design education?

Grab my free Design Lingo Glossary to grow your design vocabulary and understand your designer is saying (instead of nodding along and pretending you get what even more of those random letters mean!)

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