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Patone, CMYK, and RGB: Understanding Color

You've probably heard of Pantone, even if it's only because their "Color of the Year" announcements usually create a fair amount of buzz. What you might not know is that Patone is one of two primary types of color printing, with the other being something called CMYK. Almost every print piece you've ever seen, from pictures to logos, either uses Pantone or CMYK to decide their colors. If you're going to be ordering your own printed pieces, it's a good idea to have a basic idea of how these systems work.

CMYK color

CMYK is the adult version of mixing the primary colors in kindergarten art class. Instead of blue, red, and yellow being the base colors, CMYK is cyan (C), magenta (M), yellow (Y), and Black (K - the K really stands for Key, which is a printing term). Those four colors can be combined in different percentages to make thousands and thousands of colors. The variety possible using CMYK means that color may vary slightly from one vendor to another.

For some things, a slight variation in color is fine but for others (say, a recognizable brand color like Coca Cola has), slight variation is unacceptable. This is where Pantone steps in.



The Pantone Matching System took the variation available in CMYK and tried to standardize it. The PMS has a set number of colors (though the list is always expanding) that are assigned an individual identification number. You can take that number to any printer in the whole world and the printed color will come out the exact same shade, tint, hue, etc. This is essential for consistent brand image.

The PMS involves a set of predetermined colors and so your options are more limited than CMYK. You cannot convert a CMYK color to Pantone, only find a preexisting color that you feel is a close enough match.



So Which One Should You Use?

It depends on what your project is! A Pantone color will print the same under any circumstances with any printer, but they don't blend very well. Graphics, photographs, and artwork tend to all require blending, so you'll need to use CMYK for color nuance. Due to limitations with digital printers, CMYK is your only option when printing digitally. With offset printing, you can use either.

But you can also use both! If you're printing an ad that requires an exact brand color in addition to more nuanced colors (the people or scenery in the ad, for example), you can do something called spot-coloring, or five color process. The ad will print with the exact Pantone color you need but with blended CMYK colors making up the rest of the ad.

What is RGB?

RGB (not to be confused with Supreme Court Justice RBG) stands for red, green, and yellow. RGB color is used for every digital color you've ever seen - any color on a TV, computer, or phone screen. RGB uses pixels to make colors and only exists in the digital world. Trying to bring RGB colors into the physical world can skew your color scheme significantly, a problem that can be solved using software like Photoshop to convert RGB to CMYK.

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