Select Page

CMYK, RGB, PMS, huh? Understanding Color Formats

by | Feb 22, 2010

CMYK, PMS, RGB, It may look like industry jargon, but these color abbreviations are something every D.I.Y. designer must understand. Knowing which format to use, why and when, will make all your design and printing experiences go more smoothly.

There are dozens of different color formatting options out there in the wide world of design. But for the sake of a general audience I’m going to focus on the three most common, and most widely used formats: CMYK, PMS and RGB.

First thing’s first. Many new D.I.Y. designers would ask, “why can’t I just use one color logo for everything?” That’s a fair question. To which I respond, “Do you wear one coat for all occasions?” Probably not. You need a raincoat when it rains because other materials will soak through. You need a warm coat when it’s 30 degrees below zero in case your car gets stuck in the snow and you have to dig it out. And when you’re headed to a wedding in a beautiful silk dress, or well tailored suit, you’d hate to cover that up in a camo print bomber jacket that smells like woodsmoke from the cabin. So is it such a stretch to believe that one color logo isn’t enough?

Now that you realize the need for multiple color formats, let’s look at the options. All color formats fall into two main groups that can be determined by asking yourself a simple question: Ink or Light?

All printed or manufactured materials—from advertising, to branding and packaging, clothing and textiles—use printed inks that reflect color. The color formats most common for these uses are CMYK and PMS.

Digitally produced images, such as those on websites, or TV, are generated by Light, not ink. For these uses RGB is the industry standard.

Best uses for CMYK, PMS and RGB

Each of these color formats has it’s purpose, much like your collection of coats. Here’s a quick reference so you know when to use each color format, and why.

CMYK graphic

CMYK color graphic


These initials stand for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black; the four ink colors used in off-set printing. The way it works is by overlapping tiny dots of transparent inks which appear to create a new blended color. Most colors can be reproduced efficiently in a CMYK format.
Recommended Uses: print advertising that appears in full color
Pros: gradients, blends, photos and multi-colored images are easily created in CMYK.
Cons: some colors cannot be created in process format. CMYK is also effected by the production process; the printer, the material surface you’re printing on, etc. Expect some degree of variation.

PMS swatch book

PMS swatchbook


Stands for Pantone Matching System. PMS is recognized world wide in dozens of industries from fashion and textiles to advertising. PMS colors, often referred to as Spot Colors, are custom mixed inks created by the Pantone corporation. They can be more intense since they are an opaque ink unlike transparent processed color inks. They can also include metallics, florescent, pastels and other colors you cannot create with CMYK.
Recommeded uses: print/textile production with limited colors
Pros: you get exactly the color you expect.
Cons: most printing charges are based on the number of inks you use, and you’ll be limited to 6 at the most. Printing in PMS can get pricey once you’re using more than 4 colors.

RGB graphic

RGB is the standard format for all digital color images


All digital colors are created by combining three wavelengths of the light spectrum: Red Green and Blue. R, G and B can be produced in 256 depths each, which makes the possible color combinations over 16 million. And since we’re viewing the source of that light, rather than a reflection, these colors can be much brighter and more intense than anything we can create with printed inks.
Recommended uses: anything digital (including TV)
Pros: vivid colors in as wide a spectrum as you can imagine. No limit to number of colors in any project.
Cons: RGB colors must be converted to CMYK in order to print. Since CMYK doesn’t have the range of RGB many times the color will reproduce darker and more dull.


This is a formatting system I know little about, but it bears mentioning as the internet is such a part of our design world now. Some of my favorite color resource websites like focus on the HEX colors used online. These colors are named with 6 numbers and/or letters and they represent every possible color in the RGB spectrum. Every blog or website uses these colors in their formatting.

Do you need to have a WEB/HEX version of your logo? Maybe. If you have one set-up in RGB your’re probably all set. But creating a color palette specifically for the web is something that might best be left to the guru’s that are building your site.

So the next time someone asks for your color logo, hopefully you’ll be able to answer, “Would you like that in CMYK, RGB or PMS?” And this time you’ll actually know what you’re talking about.



  1. How to Pack an Identity Suitcase « marketing d.i.y. - [...] So many choices, so little understanding of why. Just like clothing, each one has a specific function. Forget to…
  2. The Jeff Foxworthy Approach to Graphic Design « marketing d.i.y. - [...] You think RGB is a musical style Musicians dabble in R&B, Designers prefer RGB. RGB actually stands for Red…

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

fourteen + 10 =

About the Author

Brandy Wheeler

Brandy Wheeler is the Creative Director and right-brained partner at Visitors Media. She’s a pysanky-making figure skater with a knack for finding Petoskey stones at the beach. Armed with an Albion College degree in visual art and 25 years of experience in graphic design and marketing she loves to share her expertise in writing. You can also find her on-camera as the founder and voice of the Traverse Traveler brand.

Here are a few related posts to check out for more information.

No Results Found

The page you requested could not be found. Try refining your search, or use the navigation above to locate the post.