Stay true to your brand with CMYK, PMS, RGB and Hex

Color is personal. A pale green may be evocative of verdant summer days for one person, but conjure visions of painful family meals in a chartreuse dining room for another. We feel color deeply; it effects our mood. We respond on a psychological level to cues delivered by different color combinations (palettes), and we’re not all actually seeing the same colors anyway (think about that social media furor over the blue/gold dress). There are also literally millions of possibilities, combinations, and slight variations of tone. Put that all together, and color is hard to get right.

Once you do your due diligence in picking your brand colors—weighing the impact of a bold red against the calming nature of a subtle pink, matching the perky tone of your palette to your chipper messaging, and assessing the implications of using gray (is it boring or does it say “practical and dependable?”)—the struggle is over, right?

Nope. Staying true to brand colors can be tricky even after your palette is finalized.

Why Color Needs Your Help to Stay True

The appearance of a color is variable.

Here’s an example: if you put the exact same color ink on a piece of glossy paper (coated) and a piece of matte paper (uncoated), that color will look brighter on the glossy paper. The matte paper, due to its porous nature, will absorb more ink and make the color appear dull. If not anticipated and adjusted for, the variations caused by different papers can lead to inconsistency in how your color appears.

It’s not just a paper issue, either. The type of color (CMYK, PMS, RGB/Hex) you use matters. Each creates color differently, and each has an intended use—at-home printing, special colors, or computer screens and displays—that when used correctly, safeguards a brand’s particular palette to be represented correctly.

By understanding the basics of how color is made in CMYK, PMS, RGB and Hex, and which to use in what instance will help ensure you’re staying true to your brand colors.

Color Type Breakdown: CMYK, PMS, RGB, and Hex



These are your go-to colors.

How it works: CMYK uses a subtractive process that mixes four ink colors to produce a tonal range. The four ink colors are listed in the acronym CMYK: “C” stands for cyan, “M” for magenta, “Y” for yellow, and “K” for black. (Which isn’t so odd if you consider that “K” actually stands for “key,” referencing the “key” plate of black ink used to ensure registration—that things align—in lithographic printing; It’s an old term that stuck around.)

How to read it: Your CMYK colors may be listed as four numbers separated by slashes, 75/5/100/0, or like this: c=75, m=5, y=100, k=0.

When to use them: With standard printing methods like using your office/home inkjet printer or when using the digital press at your local print shop.



Consider these your special colors.

How it works: Using the Pantone Matching System (PMS for short), a broader range of color than the CMYK process is made possible by mixing together different unique inks like “Translucent White,” “Reflex Blue” and “Rubine Red.” This results in a stunning tonal array that includes metallics, neons, and pastels.

How to read it: Your PMS colors (also called “spot” or “solid”) will be listed as a number followed by a “C” or a “U” indicating if the color is meant to be used on a “coated” or “uncoated” paper.

When to use them: PMS colors may deliver more punch, but they are intended to be used on an off-set (professional) press. So, break out your PMS palette when you’re getting your fancy stationary printed, but bear in mind that the colors won’t always translate well to other reproduction methods: your metallic gold will look like a flat mustard tan if you print from a standard digital press.


RGB and Hex:

These are your on-screen colors.

How it works: RGB uses an additive process of mixing Red (R), Green (G), and Blue (B) light together to create millions of colors. The issue can be that everyone’s screens have different capabilities and calibrations, so it can be difficult to control.

How to read it: For coding purposes, a 6-digit number is used to denote a color. In the old days, these hexadecimal (“hex”) numbers were limited to a palette of 256 “web-safe” colors with three sets of repeated digits and looked like this: 66cccc. While these numbers are still used, options have expanded thanks to the advent of 24-bit “true color” in RGB displays and a code for a similar color would now look like this: 4eb9bf. These expanded options allow for your online presence to more closely match how you look in print. For other digital applications, like making an infographic .PNG for your social media feed or a slideshow presentation, you don’t have to use your hex numbers. In these cases, hex numbers can be clunky and your RGB values can be used instead. The same color listed above would look like this: r=78, g=185, b=191 or 78/185/191.

When to use them: Use these colors for your website, mobile apps, and anything intended to be viewed on a computer, mobile device, or projector.

Armed with this information you’ll know which color type of your palette to use where, and you’ll never be visually misrepresented. Go forth and be true to your colors.


Sarah Morgan Karp

Senior Designer