Colour Profiles: Why should I care about RGB, CMYK and PMS?

Picture the scene: you have a lovely new piece of print–a flyer, poster or maybe a brochure ready to rock. Then, when you send the file to your printer they tell you that it’s set-up in RGB and needs to be CMYK; or even worse, they tell you that it needs to be set-up as PMS. What on earth do they mean, and why is it important?

Wait a second, I’m already confused…

Well, every industry has its own lingo and terms that sound like gibberish to anyone outside the industry. Print and design is just the same.

If you send anything to print or get anything designed (for print or digital media), you really do need to have a basic understanding of these terms. This means that anyone who runs a business or purchases design and print for a business needs to get their head around this. Not educating yourself on the difference between RGB, CMYK and PMS can cost you money, time and hair. Not to mention that getting it wrong can ruin the look of your job…

White tablet PC, smartphone and laptop isolated on blue abstract reflective background

Let’s start with RGB…

Basically, if the design will be displayed on a screen of any kind (websites, email newsletters, animations, video etc.) then the colours MUST be created in RGB format.

‘RGB’ simply represents the three main colours used to create and display the different hues that make up your job: Red, Green and Blue. These colours and hues are made completely from light – no ink-based processes use the RGB system.

There are a couple of important points that you need to remember when using RGB. Firstly, no two screens are the same (even if they’re made by the same manufacturer), so your design or image will display slightly differently across. Secondly, because it is a light-based system, the range of colours the RGB system can produce (also know as the ‘gamut’) is different to CMYK and PMS. Basically, RGB colours tend to be more vibrant than anything that can be printed. As such, if you convert an RGB image to CMYK for printing, you will notice that some colours will become more dull.

CMYK Ferrari car at night

Okay, I get that. So what the heck is CMYK?

Often this is called the ‘four colour process’ and is the basis for most printing – inkjet, laser or commercial lithographic.

As with RGB, CMYK refers to the four primary colours that are used to produce the whole range of printed hues and colours: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Key (another name for Black).

Basically, this process works by layering the four coloured inks one on top of the other in varying densities. This creates tonal differences which trick the eye into seeing colours that aren’t really there. Put a magnifying glass over a photo in a magazine or brochure and you’ll see that, in reality, it’s just made up of dots of CMYK ink.

Obviously, the colour of the paper or card that is being used (sometimes called the substrate) is also very important. A brilliant white paper or card stock will more often than not give the best colour reproduction, whereas an off-white, cream or coloured stock will have a big effect on colour reproduction.

The range of colours that the CMYK process can produce is more limited than RGB and PMS. However, it is the industry standard and allows for remarkably accurate reproduction across a range of applications. As such, it is also the most cost effective way to create your printed media.

Of course, as it is a mechanical and chemical process and colours are mixed during the print process, some limited variation is to be expected and is inevitable. This is something to bear in mind if you want your brand colour to be perfectly reproduced across everything you have done, or if you want to use a vibrant, bright colour or a pastel colour that cannot be reproduced using the CMYK system.

This is where the PMS system comes in…

Open colour sample catalogue

Er… What does PMS have to do with colour?

Not that kind of PMS. This refers to ‘Pantone Matching System’. Sometimes these are referred to as ‘spot colours’ or ‘special colours’. They can be used on their own, or in combination with the CMYK process. So, for instance, you could have a brochure printed in CMYK with just your company logo appearing in a PMS colour.

This is a colour matching system used worldwide by designers, printers and sign-makers to ensure accurate colour reproduction. It’s especially important for companies that want to use a specific colour across all of their branding with as little variation as possible (e.g. easyJet’s orange or Barclay’s blue).

The PMS system also includes some metallic colours, fluorescent colours and other special colours. Due to its specialist nature, it is more expensive than the CMYK process, but the results are superb.

Unlike the CMYK process, PMS colours are pre-mixed and therefore result in the most consistent colour reproduction possible. Your printer or designer will have a Pantone colour book that you can look through to choose the colour(s) you want to use. This system ensures accurate colour reproduction every time and eliminates as many discrepancies as possible between your design and the final, printed product.

Okay, I get what CMYK, RGB and PMS are now. So when should I use them?

Will your design be viewed on a screen (e.g. a website)? If so, use RGB. Will your design be printed? If so, NEVER use RGB.

Will your design be printed? Does it incorporate full-colour and maybe some photographs? Then ensure it is supplied as a CMYK file – it can produce a wider range of colours than PMS and is more cost effective. In fact, if your design incorporates 3 or more colours, CMYK should be your first choice for printing.

Will your design be printed but feature metallic or neon colours, or bright greens, oranges or blues? Then you may want to speak to your printer about setting your files up using the PMS system before you undertake any design work. If you have a key brand colour that you want to be accurately printed across a range of media, you may also wish to use PMS colours. If in doubt, ask your printer.

Great. So, what now?

It may seem like a nuisance, but ensuring your files are set-up in the correct colour mode prior to print will save you time and money. It helps you and your printer to spot discrepancies and issues early on before it’s too late to fix them.

If you have any further questions or need any more advice about colour, get in touch with us today and a member of our design team will be happy to help you. We can help you work out a solution that is cost effective and will still achieve what you want. Trust us, optimising your files for print really is worth the effort…