Show your colour: RGB, CMYK and PMS for dummies

7 May 2019

We’ve found that some of the terms we throw around, such as CMYK, RGB and PMS, have our clients feeling like they’ve been left out of an inside joke. What do these different colour modes stand for? And what is their purpose? We’ve put together a quick guide, so the next time you’re talking to a designer or printer, you can really talk the talk.

1. RGB, for digital design.

RGB stands for:




RGB is reserved for onscreen and is an additive process. With RGB, the starting point is 'light’, or rather the absence of light, leaving you without a noticeable colour, a black monitor so to speak. The three colours are then added, each with a different intensity Watch the magic happen as exactly the right colour is displayed on your smartphone, laptop, TV, etc.

Red, green and blue each have 256 colour variations, therefore offering the possibility to create 16.7 million colours.

RGB colours are defined with a value, where the first two digits represent red, the middle two digits stand for green and the last two for blue. For example, #000000 is rendered as black, because all of the parameters are set to their lowest value.

RGB colours are generally slightly brighter than CMYK colours, because they are formed by light, whereas CMYK uses paper as its base.

2. CMYK, for print.

CMYK stands for:




Key ( = black, the key colour, which will be the last and darkest colour that is layered over the other three)

CMYK is reserved for printing and it is a subtractive  process in which light is absorbed and reflected on paper. Different quantities of the CMYK colours allow you to print full colour.

CMYK is measured in percentages; the higher the percentage of a certain colour, the darker the result. Black is formed, for example, by the following dosage: C 50%, M 40%, Y 40% and K 100%. Make sure that the total value does not exceed 300%, otherwise the ink might not dry properly, leaving you with stains on your printed material.

3. PMS, the Pantone Matching System.

PMS is a system designed by the Pantone company. The Pantone system is based on thousands of numbered colour swatches, which makes sure that colours can be printed exactly as they were intended.  For example, ‘coral’ may not be exactly the same for one printer as it is for another. 

The PMS colours are mainly used for logos and corporate identities. Printing in Pantone gives the best results if you have a one- or two-colour job. Pantone is also the safest option for packaging, guaranteeing the strictest colour consistency across different materials. 

Your software will offer the Pantone colour chart in its colour library.

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Geschreven door Jan

Senior Graphic Designer

Jan has been around the block a few times and has gathered considerable graphic experience throughout the years. Trained in printing and print finishing, Jan can rely on 17 years of professional experience and a thorough know-how of the newest Creative Cloud Suite.
Jan not only works quickly and flawlessly, he is also a gold mine of information.  Jan's knowledge of complex printing techniques enables him to perfectly assess what is technically feasible and what is not.

In his spare time, Jan likes to take long walks by the beach with his daughter and he loves movies and bingeable drama series.

Boek Jan