Introduction: Before we get into the explanations and technical jargon, let me just say that color is one of the hardest things we deal with as a design firm. We work with a wide range of clients, but most of them are on a budget AND often a little particular (all creative types are) so color shifts between what they see on their screens and their business cards really matters.
In the design world, we tend to speak in the language of design. And, a lot of what we speak can sound like pure rubbish to the untrained ear. We get caught up in nuance over issues like the differences between a “brand” and a “logo” or “letterpress” versus “embossing.” Sometimes, we sound like mad mathematicians, talking about vectors and bitmaps and other such nonsense. One topic in particular that often leaves a client confused (scratching his head and looking at the designer as though she just swallowed a canary) is the difference between CMYK, RGB, and PMS (no, not that kind of PMS).
Poster by Anneke Short
These three acronyms represent three different approaches to color in design and printing. Without giving a lecture on the subject, here are the basics that you need to know:
RGB: Remember the color wheel in kindergarten? This is kind of like that with the obvious omission of “yellow”, which has been replaced with “green.” R is for Red. G is for Green. B is for Blue. Together, these three colors make up on-screen colors, using pixels or dots. Each pixel has its own concentration (or mix) of intensity of these colors. Put together, RGB can create any color in the spectrum. So, anything you may use for the computer, such as websites, digital newsletters, PowerPoint presentations and the like will be in RGB color. Now, if you need to print something …
PMS: Unlike that monthly visitor that everyone, male or female, has experienced on some level, this PMS stands for Pantone Matching System. A Pantone is that lovely little color swatch that comes with a convenient number so that you can match the exact shade every time. Most folks are familiar with a similar system used for house paints. They go to the local hardware, find a swatch that they love, and give the swatch to the paint-mixer-person who, in turns, programs the corresponding color number into a computer to mix the exact shade into paint (only if it were that easy). The same system is applied when printing materials using the Pantone system. This is ideal when printing in one or two colors. It is less expensive than the familiar CMYK (wait for it) printing that most folks know about. With the pantone number, you are sure to nail the exact color every time (that is, so long as your printer is keeping the equipment clean). Which brings us to …
CMYK: For print jobs that require more than two colors or that have full-color images (think, magazine), this is the way to go. CMYK is made up of blue, magenta, yellow and black, which would technically be BMYB, but is actually Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black because designers developed this system and, as noted above, we like to
confuse keep people on their toes. So, anyway, CMYK is four-part color that is also known as “process color” and can be used for a variety of printing jobs of, and we are stressing this, TWO COLORS OR MORE. Thing is, CMYK is a bit pricey and not necessary when you have the option to use PMS (snicker) for your print jobs. More often than not, people request CMYK because that is what they know, but it is often not necessary and/or not the best option. Now, a lot of desktop printers use CMYK, so just check the specs on your own machines and format your files accordingly. But, if you are working with a professional, be sure to discuss the best options for the kind/size of job.
Check out the image below… the difference between PMS and converting it to CMYK is mind-blowing. Crazy, right?!
Now, go out there and dazzle someone with your new-found fluency in design speak. There are more language lessons to come (wonder if Rosetta has course for this) …
We’ll cover different printing techniques in the coming weeks… specifically Digital, Offset and Letterpress and the pros and cons of those processes as well as mixing them. Stay Tuned.
Questions or Comments? Make a comment below and we’ll do our best to answer you.