The Differences Between RGB, CMYK, and Pantone Color Systems

Color selection is a process by which designers match together shades of colors. This process is used in every creative business from web designers to interior decorators. While color selection is rather detailed, you also have to consider the color space used when selecting these colors.

In this post I’d like to cover the major differences found between RGB, CMYK, and Pantone. These three color systems are used to define specific colors but they each rely on a different method of color selection. I’ll also lightly touch upon color models such as HSB and LAB.


What is RGB?

Anyone who works on the web has likely heard of RGB. This color selection method uses a series of numbers from 0-255. RGB stands for Red, Green, and Blue.

This may be confusing since primary colors are Red, Yellow, and Blue. It actually comes down to additive and subtractive colors which are chosen deliberately based on the fact that monitors use light to create color.

Your computer screen displays colors based in RGB where each pixel represents a certain color. What’s interesting is that computer monitors have differing ICC profiles which are like color profiles. Slight differences in how colors are displayed make RGB somewhat hard to pin down.

Overall it’s still the best way to choose digital colors for websites or mobile applications. There’s CSS syntax to define colors with RGB but most developers go with Hexadecimal code. This replaces 0-255 and changes it to 00-FF where the range covers 0-9 and subsequently A-F.

What is CMYK?

Print design work uses CMYK color selection based on the 4 main colors of ink: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key(Black). CMYK is a subtractive color mix because it’s based on a white background, AKA printer paper.

Photoshop does have CMYK in the color picker with values ranging from 0%-100%. Since Photoshop is used for both print & digital design it offers both selection styles. However a traditional print program like InDesign primarily relies on CMYK.

Digital designers should also learn about CMYK color picking because it can be used in branding projects. Often times you’ll need to restyle a logo for print work and CMYK is a necessity.

Unfortunately there’s not much to learn about CMYK until it comes time to use it in action. The best advice I have is to recognize when a project needs CMYK, RGB, or potentially both.

What is Pantone?

The Pantone color system is another method for print work. It may sometimes be called the Pantone Matching System(PMS).

It varies from CMYK in that it doesn’t require a combination of various colors(like C+M+Y+K). Instead Pantone colors are defined as singular units like pantone 2995c(a light/sky blue).

Most people recognize Pantone as the stereotypical color swatch book and it’s been around since the 1960s. You can select Pantone colors in Photoshop by opening the color picker and clicking “Color Libraries”.

These colors can be converted back into RGB/CMYK with ease. Most Pantone colors are more expensive because the ink is created through a careful process of exact color matching. However it’s useful when you need to get exact colors for logos or background elements in a print project.

Picking & Choosing Colors

It should be obvious by now that these 3 color mixing styles are rather different and provide differing uses accordingly. A noteworthy point is that while each one has a different purpose, there are various methods of selecting these colors which all seem to fall in line together.

For example, HSL and HSB are two very similar selection methods that differ in technicalities. A color wheel for HSL rounds the hue in a circle with saturation on the x-axis and value on the y-axis. Most Photoshop users recognize this as the default color picker method. Read up more on HSL and HSB to see the minor differences.

Also consider how some colors may be selected via a color wheel and others are on more of a sliding scale. Again this comes down to technical skills where an individual’s personal preference is the deciding factor.

Inside the Photoshop color picker you can choose between these different selection methods to change how the picker actually works. Your color window can cycle among the choices of HSB, RGB, or LAB.

Hopefully this post clarifies a few blank spots and misconceptions related to color selection. No matter what your industry, it’s always useful to understand how colors are defined and utilized. By studying various color spaces you’ll be well-equipped to maneuver around any design field.