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If you’ve ever worked with a designer or a printer, chances are you heard the term “CMYK”. Chances are you also nodded and smiled with no idea what they were talking about. Well, I’m here to tell you about CMYK, RGB, and Pantone, and what makes these color systems so important to designers.

1. CMYK Color System

CMYK is a color system that stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key (Black) and is used in printing. You can probably picture Yellow and Magenta but Cyan is that light almost neon-like blue that’ll often be a “standard” color in old drawing programs like Microsoft paint or a highlight color in Word that calls itself “turquoise”. That’s Cyan, Word, you’re not fooling anyone.

The K stands for Key because in old four-color printing, the printing plates of the other 3 colors were aligned according to the Black plate, aka the Key. At least, that’s the most commonly accepted answer. There are conflicting answers and a lot of it is to do with how things worked when the CMYK printing process was still very new.

CMYK is what is called a four-color printing process. It’s a subtractive color process which means every color derived from this process the result of partially or completely subtracting (that is, absorbing) some wavelengths of light and not others. Basically, “mix certain amounts of colors to make other colors.” You’ve probably seen CMYK more often than just shopping for ink cartridges for the printer. If you’ve ever looked closely at a fast food bag when you were younger or looked at a vintage comic, you’ve probably noticed the little dots that make up the colors in the image. Those dots are nothing more than overlapped portions of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black dots.

You don’t see those dots as often because printing technology has become more advanced. We have better printers with a much greater threshold for detail. Any printed thing you come across does still use CMYK it’s just much harder to make out those dots.

2. RGB Color System

RGB stands for Red, Green, and Blue, and is the color system used on things like computer screens and phone screens. This color system uses an additive color process. It’s called such because various amounts of Red, Green, and Blue light are added together to create new colors (16.7 million of them, actually).

One way to easily understand additive vs. subtractive color processes is to think about what happens when all colors are mixed together. When putting heavy amounts of Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow together, the result from this color system gets darker and darker. That’s because you’re physically putting more and more ink on a piece of paper. In order to make a color lighter, you need to use less amounts of ink.

On the flip side, additive color deals with light and is based on human perception of colors. Think about a prism. When light comes in the right way, it creates a rainbow. In reverse, the more you put Red, Green, and Blue (and the secondary colors that they make) together, the lighter a color you get.

The RGB color system is a little harder to spot with the naked eye. However, if you’ve ever put your face extremely close to an older computer, watched a video with a screen in it that seems to be doing the wave, or looked closely at an electronic billboard, you’ve probably seen it.

Both CMYK and RGB use color codes. If you have Microsoft Word and have ever wanted to change a font color, you may have seen a box with a rainbow that fades to gray and below noticed a few boxes. These three boxes, Red, Green, and Blue, have numbers next to them that range from 0 to 255. The numbers represent how much of each base color is going into the color you’re creating. For example, if all three boxes have 255, the resulting color is White. This is, of course, a color code for RGB.

Working with CMYK color codes is a little less accessible. If you’re working in Adobe Illustrator (which is a fancy-pants version of Microsoft Paint), you can create a document that’s prepped to be printed rather than viewed on a screen. When a doc is prepped that way, colors are set in CMYK. This ensures that the printed result will be much closer to what your screen is showing than if it were in RGB. CMYK color codes are set in terms of percentage rather than 0 to 255. To get White out of CMYK, all four colors must be at 0%.

3. Pantone Color System

The last color system I want to talk about is Pantone! If you’ve been to an art museum gift shop or an artsy store like Blick, you may have seen Pantone products. They make accessories like iPhone cases, journals, and mugs, all with patented Pantone color blocks, the word “Pantone” and a color code.

So what is this color-making conglomerate? Pantone is a corporation that has become a regular in the design world due to its Pantone Matching System (or PMS). This system is Pantone’s way of ensuring that Pantone 300 (a shade of Blue) will be the same whether it’s in fabric, on a mug, on a poster, paint on your walls, or the Flag of Scotland.

Pantone colors are patented by Pantone because of Pantone’s Hexachrome color system. It’s a similar system to CMYK except it also uses Orange and Green in the base colors. This makes matching Pantone colors to CMYK colors very difficult to replicate exactly, especially where oranges and greens are concerned.

Pantone also produces color swatches specifically for this purpose (as part of its PMS). These swatches show a Pantone color, the code, the RGB code, the HTML code, and the CMYK equivalent. As you might be able to see in the picture, the CMYK translation doesn’t quite get to Pantone’s Hexachrome level.

These three color systems are part of a designer’s bread and butter and knowing the difference is essential in creating a good and professional-looking finished product. So, the next time you’re changing your font color, hopefully you get a sense of satisfaction knowing how these colors are created.

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