Updated: Jan 21, 2020
Pantone vs. CMYK vs. RGB
Let's be honest. By the time you were in grade school you probably felt you learned everything you were ever going to need to know about color. Spoiler Alert: we were wrong!
Color psychology is real. There's a reason why white space can make us feel more open and a bedroom with red walls may not give you a tranquil effect. It's because for those of us who are able to see color, there are cultural, emotional and marketing considerations tied to choosing a color for your brand.
Color in Branding
Have you ever noticed that many social media platforms have a blue logo? That's because the color blue has a connotation to be connected to businesses which are community based. People perceive blue as a trusting color. Red on the other hand is a color that is great for grabbing attention. Many roofing or plumbing services may incorporate red into their logo because it's more memorable when you are driving past it on a highway. Purple is seen as very calming and serene, so it is used often in branding for psychology or medical services.
Knowing your ideal customer is crucial to choosing even just a color for your brand. You want to be sure your logo conveys trust, professionalism and knowledge within your market.
Each Person Perceives Color Differently
To add to the pressure, we have to remember each person sees color differently. Some don't see color at all. Some vendors also have limitations with printing in full color. Having color specifications for your brand can help you communicate better with production teams and illustrate your expectations. That way whether your logo is on the side of a plane or a koozie, it is easily recognizable as a part of your brand.
Why having a color specification matters:
If I put 10 people in a room together, point at a chair and ask them to identify the color, each person will use a different word to describe the same chair. What is red for me, may look burgundy to my neighbor. This is why, if you tell a designer you want orange to be used on your website, we need you to specify: which orange? I promise, we don't do this to be annoying. We are trying to do your brand a service by not guessing, but instead implementing brand consistency.
There are 3 Color Profiles that we are going to focus on today: RGB, CMYK and Pantone.
CMYK is for Printing
The color palette CMYK is actually one you may be most familiar with. The letters stand for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and the K is for Black. If you've ever added new ink to a printer, you may recognize these same letters. That's because that's exactly what CMYK is. It takes those 4 colors and uses the printing surface in a subtractive way to show your image. That's also why if you print an image on yellow paper, it will look different than if printed on white paper. Your base color is part of that equation. To keep it simple, all you need to remember is, if it's printed; it's probably CMYK.
RGB is for Digital Screens
The letters RGB stand for Red, Green and Blue. Easy peasy. When you look at your phone or tablet, these THREE COLORS are the only ones your screen can output. So every color you see on this webpage right now, is actually just a manipulation of red, blue and green. That's why if we have a logo that is designed in RGB, but send it to a printer (CMYK) the color profiles will not match. They will print as too dark or too light. Vector programs can help correct this by allowing us to specify which color profile we would like to design with or print with.
Pantone is for Professionals
Outside of CMYK and RGB there are many color enthusiasts who work to expand our understanding of color theory and capacity to use it as a tool and medium.
The Pantone Matching System (PMS) is a color profile used very commonly among printers and design professionals. Pantone is a private company which started in the 1950s. They have extensive guides and sophisticated swatches to help industries maintain color consistency across any product. Let's say that you know your logo/brand uses a Pantone Blue 285C. Because you know that color code for your shade of blue, now when you get business cards printed, t-shirts made or a billboard done, you can specifically ask for 285C blue every time. Many printers refer to Pantone Colors as spot colors. Spot colors are a great way to make sure your brand remains consistent. However, keep in mind it may sometimes cost an additional fee to match your spot colors because many times they have to be specially mixed. Remember, it's not using the RGB or the CMYK scale, so there's a little extra work involved. Extremely worth it.
The Naked Eye vs. Pantone vs. RGB vs. CMYK
Below is an image I love to use as a resource from Printer National. The color wheel below represents all the colors visible to the human eye. As you can see from the selection highlighted in yellow, the RGB color profile is able to represent many of those colors for us on a digital screen. However, you can see in the blue selection, how small of a portion of colors the CMYK of a printer can show us. For this reason, designers love working with Pantone colors, as seen in the red selection. Pantone has a much wider range of colors than CMYK and each year they add new colors to their guides available for use.