Design 101: RGB vs. Pantone vs. CMYK Color Models

Knowledge is power. 

It never hurts to know a little more about the things you work on within your personal or professional life. Design most certainly exists in both. We live in a visual world. 

And understanding the foundations of some of the design and color trends you see all around you can take you one step closer to getting your branding right.

Yes, you may choose to delegate your creatives to professional designers. You’ve got lots to do, and this way you can get consistent high-quality designs. But, if you understand the nuances of design, color trends, and even the challenges with some design styles, you’ll be better prepared to write clear briefs. 

And you’ll be better able to work with your designers.

Picture this. You find certain elements that look great on a mood board or in a design you came across online. But your designer tells you that they just won’t work for your billboard. You’d feel frustrated, right? Not only because you can’t get the design you’d hoped to. But also because you can’t understand something that impacts your business. 

We have seen our clients go through the exact thing.

So, here is a crash course to understand how color schemes, color modes, and designs work on different platforms. 

Importance of color schemes in Branding

Most business owners want to concentrate on running their business rather than look at the nitty-gritties of branding every day. And, that is completely justified. Some of our clients are superheroes for taking their business to the heights they have.

That said, knowing a bit about the building blocks of your brand will help you in this incredibly challenging journey. 

Let’s take it from the top. Branding and marketing are all about understanding what will best sway your customers. Managing customer perceptions and favorably projecting yourself, meanwhile is an art of marketing. 

And design? Well, it plays a big role in accomplishing these goals. Color and design style selection, in particular, have a profound effect on the final branding output.

Red is a popular storefront color and used to attract the passerby’s attention. 
Source: Pxhere

Color Psychology 

Color has a significant effect on our perceptions, whether we actively notice that or not. Different colors elicit different emotions and judgments from us.

By understanding color psychology, you can educate yourself on what color would work the best for your brand based on your values and customer demographic.

Are you a fun brand or a serious one? Would you need a bright, punchy color in your logo? Or a more solemn, no-nonsense color palette?

Customers often form an impression of your brand in less than 10 seconds. This could be when they glance at your product on a store shelf or an online ad, or a social media post. Colors are an easy way for the customer to understand if your brand’s values match their own, and if they should give you further attention. 

Color Models 

Okay, now that we have established the significance of color in branding, let us discuss the next piece of the puzzle – color models.

So, what are color models, and why do you need to know about them? 

Let’s go back to that scenario we discussed earlier. The frustrating one in which you can’t gauge why a particular color scheme won’t work for your billboard while it looks great on your computer screen. 

This is because of color models, also known as color systems. 

The easiest way to explain color models would be that they give us the means to define different colors. Each color model uses a particular set of components (i.e a set of primary colors) to come up with a larger number of colors. 

Some color models are meant for print while others are meant for digital outputs. This is why designers often struggle to recreate a color you saw on a Pinterest board, when you’re requesting a print design. 

Different Color Models 

The three major color modes or models used by designers worldwide are:

  1. RGB Model
  2. CMYK Model
  3. Pantone Model

The designer usually decides on what model would suit best for your project based on your brief. 

But understanding how these color models actually operate can be a valuable lesson for you. By choosing the right mode, and bringing out a desired shade, you can really shape your overall branding experience. 

Add to that, consistency in branding color palettes and designs ensures that you are viewed as a reliable, accomplished, and professional company in the market.

Choosing the right shade in the right color model is the first step to branding consistency. You cannot have your brand being represented by 2 shades of red, it would be a major misstep for brand awareness. 

RGB Color Model and Designs that work the best with RGB

Don’t get intimidated by the fancy abbreviations – they just stand for the colors in a particular color system or model.

RGB here stands for Red, Green, and Blue. When you look at any design or image on a digital screen, these colors are the ones that come together to make the shades. 

On a black screen (mobile, desktop, or tablet), designers incorporate varying degrees of Red, blue, and green light to generate the color you seek. If 0% of each color is added, the resultant would be black as the base is the black screen. Similarly, 100% of each color light would result in white (maximum light presence).

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Source: Wikimedia

This is evidence that RGB is a device-dependent model. 

And the reason why the blue on your screen can sometimes look different on your customers’. This may seem insignificant but it can actually cost you quite a lot. Studies have found that inaccurate color representations can lead to “loss of sales, increased returns and complaints, and customer defections.” 

Designers use the RGB model when they are working on design elements and marketing material for brands to use online, aka, on a screen. 

Some of the projects that the RGB model would bring out the best results for include:
  1. Web and Mobile Application Design elements such as icons, buttons, and graphics to be viewed on a screen.
  2. Online branding materials such as banners and online advertisement designs.
  3. Visual informational content such as blog graphics, infographics, images for social media, website and video content, etc. 

It’s important to note the RGB color model cannot be used for print. We perceive color on paper through the absorption property of printing ink. It doesn’t emit light as screens do. In other words ink gets its colors by absorbing colors found in white light and by reflecting other colors.

For example, blue ink looks to be blue because it’s reflecting the blue part of white light, while absorbing all of the others. Since print designs require white light, a color model made for black screens just wouldn’t work for them.

CMYK Color Model and Designs that work the best with CMYK 

Not all your designs would be solely for the web, of course. Businesses do require designs and marketing material for the offline world as well, so what do you do? 

The CMYK color model is the model used by designers and printers to bring the colors out on paper or any other printing material.

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CMYK Color model (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Key/Black)  
Source: Wikipedia

As discussed in the previous section, we see colors on paper based on what is reflected and absorbed by the ink. 

CMYK colors are Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black (Key). It is a four-color system that combines to form various hues as desired. 

We saw how different degrees of RGB light is added to the black screen to achieve the different shades of color we see in digital designs. On the contrary, the CMYK model uses a subtractive method.

Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and black blend together to form the dark black color we see. When printed, each shade is set on the paper and then padded. If you zoom in on the printed paper, you can still see small dots of color padded over each other. 

The major issue that everyone encounters with CMYK is consistency. Different printers and ink sets end up giving different shades out. That’s why it is best to try a sample print before going in on a project. Especially if you’ll be printing tons of copies!

So, instead of being device-dependent, CMYK is ink/printer dependent.

Projects where CMYK is the choice for designers include: 
  1. Business cards 
  2. Office Stationery such as letterheads and notepads
  3. Menu designs
  4. Offline marketing materials such as billboards, flyers, pamphlets, catalogs, brochures, and vehicle wraps 
  5. Offline branding materials such as signboards, stickers, nameplates, storefronts, and kiosks 
  6. Product packaging designs
  7. Merchandise design such as hats, mugs, keychains, t-shirts, and penholders, etc. 

What if you need a design for web and print? 

Yes, this is how marketing collateral generally gets created. You make a design and then replicate it for different online and offline channels.

Well, in that case, your designer will start off with CMYK settings and then move to change the design into the RGB mode.

It is a little more complicated than it sounds and is best left to a professional designer for consistent outputs across mediums.

PS: At Kimp, you can get all your designs completed and delivered to you in the formats you need with ease. All this at flat monthly fees. Check out what our clients are saying about us here

Pantone Color Model and Designs that work the best with Pantone

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Source: Unsplash

We spoke about how different printers can give varying outputs even for the same color code because of the ink quality and system settings.

Pantone is a color model developed to counter this issue. As designers, we want our clients to have a hassle-free experience with their designs even after we have completed them.

With the Pantone Matching System, each color has a code that is unique and easy to reference by the printers to arrive at the exact shade we had in mind while designing. This makes it a lot easier when dealing with prints. 

This ease of standardization and reliability in output has made the Pantone Matching system a baseline for all printing and branding-related designs. Whenever a design has to be replicated across different locations, Pantone has been the savior. 

While the process is complicated, the Pantone color conversion chart helps you identify the matching color for the shade you want. 

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Source: Unsplash

If you think that the design will be used by different store outlets and franchise units with no control over the printer, inform the designer. They will know how to handle this roadblock. 

Using a Pantone Matching system averts the issue of colors being dissimilar in different applications while also standardizing your print materials. 

The role of a designer in getting the color scheme right 

Is your mind feeling a bit full with all the details of these color models? You might also be wondering if your designers will take care of these finer details, what’s your role here? Or, should I even be getting involved?

Let us clarify this for you.

Yes, you are right in assuming that the majority of heavy-lifting when it comes to choosing color models and maintaining color consistency across mediums is the designers’ forte.

But, your designers also needs your help to understand:
  1. Where is the design primarily meant to be used?
  2. Will the design be used as a printed material at any point in time? 
  3. Do you have control over the printing process, or would it be ad-hoc/decentralized? 

At times, businesses have existing marketing collateral in hand and want the new designs to follow the same color palette without variations. In such scenarios, having access to the file in the correct format becomes vital for the designer to accurately pick up the color profile.

Color is more complicated in design software than in a box of crayons. Yellow is not just yellow, and there are dozens of shades of white. 

Meeting your design team halfway with this knowledge will save you time and give the design team more room for innovation and creativity. And wouldn’t you rather that, then your design team spending all their time on a fact finding mission about a particular shade? 

Kimp – Intuitive Branding 

We understand the intricacies of color and color models, and how it affects your branding. That is why we take the time out to understand your business and journey, even before picking up a pen or opening a file on Photoshop.

With Kimp, the aim is to give customers a seamless experience and branding solutions that just fit their campaigns perfectly.

We believe in branding that connects, and we are here to make the design process easier for you.

Sign up for the free trial here and get your designs executed by experts who know RGB from CMYK and Pantone. And which will make your brand’s designs pop!