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Understanding the proper use of color for different applications and how to set up clearly defined color models for those applications is something every marketer and designer needs to be familiar with. Color is an essential piece of communication and brand consistency, so spending the time to get this right is absolutely key.
You may have seen this before: a business has a consistent color scheme across all media. However, the color on the website doesn’t quite match the color on business cards. The trade show banners are off when compared to branded giveaways. The marketing and design teams tried to ensure consistent color, but something went wrong. What gives?
Your computer monitor, smartphone, television and other screens use light to create color. This differs from using ink or paint because RGB is an additive method of color creation. If you mix red, green and blue light, it creates white. As you add more colors to the display, you’re adding more light from the screen’s light source to create a variety of colors. RGB is best used for app development, digital presentations and anything that will be viewed directly on a screen . RGB color codes are represented with red, green and blue values between 0 and 255. The higher the values, the brighter the color. A maximum for each—R255, G255, B255—would be pure white. And 0 in each column is black or that hazy blue/gray that some monitors define as the absence of color.
Web development has its own color language so that browsers can understand what to display. Hexidecimal values, which convert RGB numbers to alphanumeric codes, are represented by a hashtag and a 3 or 6 character value. You have probably seen hexidecimal if you’ve ever created something for web. The code for white is #ffffff and the code for black is #000000, with an incredible number of possibilities in-between.
It’s a number system that translates into color. While metric systems are base 10 and western music is base 8, hexadecimal is base 16. That means there are 16 potential values for each digit in the number. This is made up of symbols—0-9 and letters. Most color management and design programs will assign a hex value for you, so there is no need to sweat over the math!
CMYK, or 4-color printing, is used for business cards, books, magazines, billboards and most other physical items. The colors are printed a layer at a time to create images and backgrounds. Individual colors are defined as a percentage of each ink color used. Fun fact: The richest black you can achieve is not C=0 M=0 Y=0 K=100. It’s actually C=75 M=68 Y=67 K=90, also known as True Black.
Have you ever refilled your printer cartridges and wondered why the colors weren’t the same red, yellow and blue primary colors you learned in elementary school? It turns out that cyan, magenta and yellow are the “new and improved” primary colors.
Still asking “why?” Because...science!
In the CMY diagram, each color overlaps two RGB colors. Cyan overlaps blue and green, yellow overlaps green and red and magenta overlaps red and blue. Printing uses subtractive color mixing (more color gets you closer to black, not white). So, to create pure red you need to mix yellow with magenta. The light hits the mixture and reflects back to our eyes. We perceive red because the paint or ink is now absorbing (subtracting) most of the cyan spectrum and reflecting both magenta and yellow, which registers as red to our eyes.
PMS (Pantone Matching System)
Pantone Matching System (PMS) is a proprietary color system that ensures color consistency across the board. Despite the fact that X-Rite Inc. bought Pantone, Inc. in October of 2007, we still call it the Pantone system.
When a brand’s standardized color is critical (think Tiffany blue, UPS brown and John Deere green), you need Pantone—there are no substitutions. The printer uses the matching system to mix the exact shade and uses that pre-mixed “spot color” in addition to the regular CMYK process. PMS creates a perfect match to your brand colors for letterpress ink, signage, presentation folders and brochures and virtually anything printed on paper, plastic or metal.
What happens when you don’t pay attention to the difference?
Many computer programs automatically save images as RGB files. It’s not a big deal unless you print that file and discover that your blues look more purple and your lime green is noticeably duller. Likewise, you shouldn’t save a JPEG as a CMYK file if it’s going on your website because it will lose some of the vibrancy that can be achieved with RGB, and many browsers can’t translate and don’t display CMYK. If you’re going for a professional-quality, on-brand look, you need to define RGB, CMYK and Pantone color codes upfront to keep all your print and digital materials looking sharp.
Once these codes are identified, professional designers and printers work closely to get the right shade and consistency for brand colors. There are many factors that go into whether the final product is true to expectations, even what type of material or paper the color is printed on. With skilled pros on your side, tweaks can be made to get the right color for each specific project.