Updated: Jan 21, 2020
Be confident when discussing color with vendors, agencies and other professionals.
As your business grows, you may be working with different agencies, partners and vendors who are going to ask for your logo from time to time. If you are getting products printed or building a website, they will definitely need to know your color specifications.
What’s a Color Spec?
A color specification is a specific number code is used to communicate the exact colors chosen for your brand to another professional. When choosing colors you hopefully had a designer that guided you through the color psychology of marketing and you agreed upon very specific hues and complimentary hues to use. Your color specs can usually be found in your logo files or branding guidelines. With millions of colors that are visible to the human eye, there are 3 scales that are most commonly used when discussing color: CMYK, RGB and Pantone.
CMYK is for Printers
The color model 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 with ink; it's probably CMYK. When you are speaking to people in the print industry, they are usually discussing which CMYK or Pantone color to use. More about Pantone in a bit...
Helpful Hint: The CMYK code for Yellow looks like this: 0, 0, 100, 0. Each number represents one of the CMYK colors in respective order. That means you have 0% Cyan, 0% Magenta, 100% Yellow and 0% Black. See? Easy Peasy.
RGB is for Digital Screens
The letters RGB stand for Red, Green and Blue. 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.
Another Hint: The RGB code for Yellow usually looks like this: # FFFF00. Sometimes, it can be showed other ways, but a hashtag with a combination of 6 letters or numbers is usually what we are dealing 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.
BONUS: 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.