Color Profiles 101 - RGB vs. CMYK vs. PMS

While creating designs, working with a graphic designer or learning about design, you may have heard phrases like RGB and CMYK thrown around, along with the occasional Pantone reference. You smile and nod pretending like you totally know what those are, when in reality they just sound like random letters put together that make you sound like you know what you’re talking about. If this is you, I am here to help! I am about to give you the low down on color profiles and what they actually mean. 

What are RGB, CMYK and Pantone colors and why should I care?! Lucky for you, here is a whole post simplifying the basics of all three! 


RGB stands for Red Green Blue. This is an additive color profile in which red, green and blue are combined in various amounts in order to produce an array of colors. RGB colors are created through light. Therefore, it is most commonly referred to when working with graphics for computer screens, cell phones, and TVs. Digital photos and video are also shot in RGB.

RGB sliders that demonstrate the mixture of the three colors to create an final output color.

All three colors are measured by a number between 0 and 255. For example, the coral color in my logo is made up of Red: 211, Green: 136, and Blue: 118. 

So why red, green and blue are so significant? That's because if you were to take a red light, a green light and a blue light and shine them all in one spot, they would actually come together and create white light. I know - this blew my mind too. You also might be skeptical to believe me on this, but I swear I have seen first hand (thanks to a surprisingly practical elective I took in college called Crafts for the Stage). Similarly, if there were no lights on at all, we would get the color black (obvs). This is why 0, 0, 0, creates the color black and why 255, 255, 255 creates white. Everything in between is what creates the array of colors you see on your screens every day. 

It is important for any graphics intended for the web to be designed and saved out in RGB. Any other color profile may result in slight (or occasionally major) discoloration. 

RGB is also where hex values come from. Many of you may be more familiar with your brands hex code instead of the actual RGB values. A hex code is essentially a code made up of numbers and letters that describes a particular RGB color. They always begin with a pound sign/hashtag (whatever the kids are calling it these days), and are often used when coding the CSS of websites.  


CMYK also is also an abbreviation for colors; this time being Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black (the K is used for black instead of the B because B already stands for blue).

CMYK is a subtractive color profile, and is also occasionally referred to as Process Color or Four Color. CMYK is the color mode used in printing because cyan (a light, bright blue color), magenta, yellow and black are the four colors of ink used for most printing processes. This is even true for your inkjet printer at home. Take a look at the color cartridge next time you run out of ink and notice which three colors are listed on the sticker (spoiler alert: it will be cyan, magenta and yellow). The addition of the black cartridge would make all four colors, right there in your own house!  

CMYK is considered a subtractive color model because the color itself subtracts the white of the paper as it is laid down. RGB is additive because it adds color to black using light to create white. 

Just like RGB, CMYK is made up of four different values of color to create the final output. To continue, to use the example of my logo, if I were printing my logo, the CMYK values of the coral color would be 15, 53, 51, 1. These numbers are measured as percentages based on the intensity of the colored ink. If all four colors were laid down 100%, you would create a true black. 

It's very important that all of your designs are converted to CMYK before they are sent to print. Often elements like photos are forgotten and left in the RGB profile, which can often turn out discolored, given that not all RGB profiles can be reproduced in CMYK and vice versa.  


Pantone colors, also referred to as PMS for Pantone Matching System, is a color space that allows for a standardization of colors across all printing and color reproduction channels. This allows a company to have a specific pantone color that they can give to multiple manufactures and be assured the colors will match once produced. (Not to mention it allows us to have cute Pantone branded notebooks and desk knick-knacks). 

Pantone has over 1,000 spot colors to choose from, including metallic and fluorescent hues. The main issue with spot colors is that only a select amount of them that can be reproduced by CMYK. So if your company’s primary color is a PMS color, there is a good chance that getting anything printed on a digital press will turn out slightly different than your actual Pantone color. Often you can find CMYK values to be pretty dang close, but results vary depending on the color. 

As you can see, selecting the correct color space to work in for each project can be very important depending on your project's final output. In summary, if you are creating a web graphic or anything that will be viewed on a screen, use RGB. For anything that is being printed, use CMYK unless a specific Pantone color is needed. The methods of printing will also depend on the color profile. I hope this helps!  

Comment below with any questions you have!