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RGB, CMYK, and Pantone Colors: Where to Use Them and When!

During your search for promotional products you’re probably noticing some weird words to describe color. Phrases like CMYK and Pantone are popping up everywhere. When you turn to Google to find out more, you notice RGB being thrown in the mix as well.

Before you pull your hair out trying to figure out which style uses ‘additive colors’ or ‘subtractive colors’ and what the heck PMS is in relation to all of this, take a deep breath. We’re here to explain it all in layman’s terms and not in advanced terminology found in a college textbook.

First, we’ll start with RGB and why you’ll only see this style with electronic mediums instead of print.

RGB and Y…O…U

I’d bet good money you’re probably reading this blog on a computer monitor or tablet right now. The RGB style (which only includes the colors Red, Green and Blue) is only used for sharing information via computer monitors, email, websites, television, office & home printers, and all other digital files. How? Basically, your computer screen, laptop, or tablet screen mixes up various intensities of these three colors using light to create the words or images you see before your eyes in a million different colors.

How is this done? With RGB there are 256 brightness levels that are used to create around 16,777,216 possible colors. If a 0 level is used, meaning all three colors are combined to the lowest degree possible, you’ll get black.

rgb black

On the flip side, at the 255 level means that all three colors are combined and displayed to their full extent. You would see this as: R:255,G:255,B:255 meaning that the maximum levels of red, green and blue colors are used. If you want a handy way to remember this, just think of turning on lights in your bedroom, the higher the color ratios means the brighter the colors (more light = brighter room).

rgb white

The color on your monitor might be perfect for what you have in mind, but when you email it to your boss they may see an entirely different color because of their individual screen settings (brightness, contrast, etc.) or because of their monitor brand (Sony, LG, Acer). It’s possible to calibrate your monitor settings with a few tweaks.

So, you can totally use RGB for your printed brochure, right? Nope. This style works best for onscreen/digital viewing since it relates very closely to the way we naturally perceive color with the receptors in our retinas (check out this great explanation of how we see colors).

CMYK = What The Heck?

Where does CMYK fit into all of this? What colors are used? If RGB is used for digital formats, what format is CMYK used for? CMYK uses Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black. There are different explanations of why ‘k’ is used. Some believe it’s to avoid confusion with ‘b’ standing for ‘blue’ in RGB where some believe ‘k’ stands for ‘key’ or aligned with having black be a base color. Whatever the exact reason just remember that ‘k’ is the black color being described here.

CMYK is used for anything print related that you can tangibly hold: posters, billboards, business cards, brochures & leaflets. To get the 1 million color possibilities two things must happen. First, these colors are dotted onto the paper using different percentages of each color. Then the amount of overlapping determines which color your eyes will see and recognize.

To get into entirely too much detail, but because you can always use some factoids to impress friends and family with… when printed onto paper, the screens of the three transparent inks are positioned in a controlled dot pattern called a ‘rosette’. Think of an old school comic book page, like the one below. Up close all you see is circles of colors that could give you a headache if you starred too long; from a distance though, you see one solid, uniform color.

An example of a "Rosette" dot pattern used for CMYK printing

An example of a “Rosette” dot pattern used for CMYK printing

Okay, okay. Rosettes are great, but how does cyan, magenta, yellow and black produce a white color? Where RGB uses ‘additive colors’ to add more and more levels of each color to produce white, CMYK is completely reverse.

By subtracting colors with CMYK you produce a white color, C:0%, M:0%, Y:0%, K:0% is pure white, a complete lack of color.

cmyk white

By contrast, C:60%, M:40%, Y:40%, K:100% is pure black. Make sure you verify with your pressman though, they’ll know what’s best because if you search for the “richest black for CMYK colors”, you’re going to find a lot of differing opinions.

cmyk black

One more factoid for you: black is needed to produce an intense black color using the CMYK method. If you were to combine 100% cyan, magenta and yellow you would actually get a muddy brown color. Again, this is reversed for RGB where black is R:0,G:0,B:0.

Prevent Problems with Pantone Colors

Remember that monitor issue with RGB about your boss seeing a different color on their computer screen than what you see? This can easily be avoided by choosing a specific Pantone color to use for your company’s colors.

‘Blue’ at company A might be the exact blue you want for your ink color on your promo items, but ‘blue’ at the print shop you’re getting your vinyl banners at is way too light to read. By using a Pantone color and the Pantone Matching System (PMS) your items will all have the same color because each color is assigned a number to allow for easy matching everywhere that uses this system.

If you knew PMS 280C was the shade of blue you need, then the ink on your promotional items would match the blue lettering on your banner. Continuity is the name of the game for small businesses. If customers don’t recognize your logo from one item to the next then you’re just throwing your marketing budget out the window.

Have your eyes glazed over with all these factoids and knowledge?

Here are some quick takeaways to remember:

  • RGB uses light to mix colors on the computer screen for digital viewing, CMYK uses ink to mix them on paper or other tangible objects
  • You don’t use RGB for printed items because monitor settings on computers are different than the true color we see, the colors are more vibrant and brighter
  • White in RGB is: R:255,G:255,B:255 whereas white in CMYK is C:0%,M:0%,Y:0%,K:0%
  • Find a Pantone color that best fits your company’s color so you won’t have to worry about having thirty different shades of blue for your printed items

Rainbows have seven colors but using CMYK and RGB the color opportunities for your printed brochures and promotional items are nearly endless! If you’re worried you’ll pick the wrong color for your stress ball or your notepads, our sales team members will give you a hand. Give us a call at 1-866-312-5646, drop us an email at, or send a message via live chat to get started today!

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  1. Mike Wenger

    So why do Pantone colors look different when they are printed in CMYK?

    • Amy Swanson

      Hey Mike! Great question 🙂

      This didn’t come up in my research so I asked one of our sales team members and this is what he said: Pantones (like paint colors at your local hardware store) are exactly mixed pigments per a formula. Whereas CMYK is a representation of the colors based of a mixture of CMYK. So, for example: PMS 186 Red consists of 12 parts warm red, 4 parts Rubine and ¼ part black. CMYK, on the other hand would be just percentages of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black to make a color that looks like 186. In that way, Pantones are the truest representation of a specific color. In addition, and all things being equal, CMYK outputs vary at a greater degree than Pantones simple because of the process.

      I hope that helps. Thanks so much for stopping by!!

  2. Bill Brown

    A great article, and without getting too technical a couple of points;
    C0%M0%Y0%K0% does = no colour, but not necessarily white. That will depend on the base colour on which you are printing

    some colours just won’t translate from pantone (or spot) colours to cmyk; reflex blue is one and most pale lime greens will disappoint. If in doubt buy a pantone color bridge chart

    digital print is usually cmyk

  3. Per Hanssen


    Thanks for the article. How designers use CMYK still puzzles me cause I’m looking at a visual guideline right now and it says for instance C72 M98 with no defined Y or K values?! Another color in the guide is classified with C70 M70 K45 – so why isn’t the Yellow defined? Does this mean that everything NOT included in the color values is 0? When I add the value 0 where there’s no description in the guide I get something looking like what I see on the pdf on the screen.

    Also, in the guide it says “we use a basic color palette to avoid using different versions of the same color.” But when I look at how Adobe PS and InDesign calculates the RGB value of the CMYK values, theyre not the same as in the guide. In other words C70 M70 K45 (guessing theres no Y here cause it’s basicly 0) gets directly translated to R62 G56 B109 in Photoshop, but in the guide it says R46 G31 B84. This doesn’t correspond with what they are saying about “avoiding using different versions of the same color.”? Wouldn’t that mean using the direct RGB version of that color?

  4. Diane

    What is the pantone colors for the Chicago cubs?

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