While doing some work for a client recently, I needed to get a mobile phone SIM card design made up which required Pantone colour references. I don’t use much print these days, but having started my marketing career with direct mail, I remembered that the different colour systems were a bit confusing at first. So if you’re wondering what’s the difference between Pantone, CMKY and RGB, then read on.

The Pantone Matching System is a standardised, proprietary, and hugely popular way to reference colours. Each colour is a ‘spot colour’ meaning that the colour has been pre-mixed to the exact specification and match and is applied as a single colour, on a single plate on a printing press or in a manufacturing process. Companies use this if they want to reliably get an exact colour match, if they don’t require full colour printing (e.g. in a letter head) or if the manufacturing process dictates it.

CMYK refers to Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Keyline (Black) and is used in four colour, process printing. This uses four plates on the press, each with a different colour which are then over printed onto a single piece of paper (‘stock’) to create a full colour image. Companies would use this if they wanted full colour printing particularly if they are using full colour images or photographs.

RGB refers to Red, Green & Blue and is the colour system used for screens (and not for print). With this system, a colour can be achieved by specifying the Red Green and Blue values, with each value being from 0 (none) to 255 (full). So for example 0, 0, 0 would be pure black; 255, 255, 255 would be pure white and say 255, 128, 0 would be an orange, having mixed red and green with no blue. RGB colours can also be specified in HEX, often used in code. For example our 244, 102, 0 orange could also be specified in hex (indicated by a #) as #f46600. You can probably guess from the example that each of the values for R, G & B are simply specified in hex (base 16) values pairs.

Now for the difficult bit. Converting between different colour systems.

The tricky bit is that the range of colours that can be produced between the different systems vary. RGB provides a huge range (‘gamut’) of colours. But the range of colours that can be produced using CMKY and print is more limited. So sometimes screen images that looked vibrant can look duller when printed. And Pantone colours, while being vibrant, may not have an exact RGB or CMKY reference making it difficult to convert between colour systems. Popular Adobe software offers ways to convert between colours but you may need to manually adjust these to get what you want. And even then it will never be an exact match.

So when asking ‘Pantone vs CMYK vs RGB?’ The answer really depends on what you are using it for.