RBG, CYMK, and Spot Color, What’s the Difference?

Written by Design, Printing

Swatches of different color gradients

If you are designing anything in color, it’s important you become familiar with color modes.

The most common are RGB, CYMK, PMS or Pantone. The best way to differentiate between the three is by determining what job to use each.

Simply put RGB is most commonly used for anything digital or on a screen, while CYMK and PMS are best for print jobs.


So let’s first explain RGB and when and why to use this mode. RGB is the most basic and most commonly used of the three. RGB stands for Red, Green, and Blue, otherwise referred to as the primary colors.

The RGB color mode is considered an additive process, meaning that colors are added or combined in different amounts to produce a broad range of colors. For example, when combined, red and green create yellow and red and blue create purple.

Each color (Red, Green, and Blue) are each an element of the final product and the intensity at which they are added determines the resulting color. The resulting product will have a hue most similarly resembling the component ( Red, Green, or Blue ) with the strongest intensity.

RGB is light-based and can produce bright and vivid colors, colors outside of normal ranges of other color models such as CMYK or Pantone. Due to its versatility in color options and use of light RGB is best suited for digital use. This could mean digital photography or web/ computer use.

To give an example of how this would work on a digital platform, formats such as television or computers create and use tiny pixels that, if viewed under a magnifying glass, are one of the three colors (Red, Green, Blue). Light is projected through them, blending the colors on the eye’s retina to create the desired colors.

Most graphic design applications will automatically set up documents in RGB color model and your computer as a default uses RGB color display


CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black.

CMYK is considered a subtractive color mode. A subtractive color model could be explained as a set of colors each acting to partially or completely subtract or absorb some wavelengths of light coming off of the white background.

The color that a surface display depends on which parts of the visible spectrum are not absorbed and therefore remain visible.

Cyan is the complement of red, meaning that it acts as a filter that absorbs and modifies red, the amount of cyan applied to a white sheet of paper controls how much of the red in white light will be reflected back and or visible.

​Similarly, Magenta is the complement of green and thus controls how much of green is seen, and yellow is the complement of blue and controls how much blue is seen.

A combination of different amounts of the three can create a wide range of colors with good saturation.

​Keep in mind CMYK has less of a range of colors than RGB,  so conversions would need to be made if you are printing a previously RGB color modeled digital graphic. Some printers convert RGB to CMYK automatically.

The printing process using CMYK involves the image being sent to a printer first being broken into thousands of CMYK dots that overlap. These dots then l blend together to create full-color images. If you were to observe this under a magnifying glass you would see these dots in one of the colors Cyan, magenta, yellow, and black, all spread out and overlapping to create the image.

Diagram showing the RGB and CMYK color modes


PMS stands for Pantone matching system and is often either called Pantone or spot printing. This process refers to a color or ink that has been specifically mixed and calibrated to a color matching system. Some make the comparison to picking out a paint swatch except in this process a color is picked from a catalog of PMS /Spot colors.

PMS colors are most often used for offset printing and screen-printing, usually in large runs. It’s also recommended for jobs where it’s essential that you have color accuracy and consistency like for printing such things as a company logo.

The printing process involves a single plate made for each spot color. If two or three spot colors are used for a print project, it is labeled as a 3 color job.

However, since a new plate has to be made for each color the more colors you include could drastically increase the costs for such a printing job. as a result, PMS colors are best if used for projects using less than 4 colors.​

How do you know which Color Type to use?

Like I had mentioned before choosing which color model to use entirely depends on the nature of the job.

​Simply put if it’s digital or on a screen than the RGB color model will best suit the job.

For print jobs, CMYK or PMS are the way to go. CMYK should be your first choice of printing methods for any design that utilizes four or more colors. CMYK can create a wide range of colors, so it’s used primarily for full-color printing. It provides the greatest amount of accuracy when printing designs that contain various colors.

It’s not necessary to memorize all the details and technical information behind each of these models. However, you should keep in mind when to use which, to achieve the colors that your design or print job demands.

Diagram showing how each color mode is used in printing

​Also, make sure to communicate with your printer or graphic designer so that your designs are using the right color mode and that necessary conversion are made to ensure your colors don’t get distorted.

Some things to consider about color before creating your design:

  • Consider the psychology of color: color plays a huge role in how your audience perceives your graphic and subsequently the company and product associated with the graphic. Check Out our article written all about how to create a great logo using theory and psychology and use color to your advantage.
  • Consider color tones: now that we’re all pros on the ins and outs of color modes, make sure to remember to not only play around with colors but also tones, changing tones and hues of a particular color can drastically change the effect it has on the design.
  • Consider how many colors to use: deciding how many colors will be included in your design could be a great first step. Whether your brand has a set of colors you want to stick to or your simply making a single color print. Determining this early on will help steer the design and help to decide which color mode to use as well. For example, if you’re using less than 4 for a print job, you might want to consider PMS.
  • Consider cultural implications of colors: always take into consideration the context your design will be in. whether that be where the graphic is going to be located in your city or what the design might mean to viewers culturally, ensure that the work you put into the graphic or print will make a favorable impression on those who view it.

If you have any questions make sure to ask your designer or printer or give us a call for any printing questions. Printleaf ​offers a wide range of products and services and always ensures high-quality prints in a timely manner.

Last modified: January 31, 2020

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RBG, CYMK, and Spot Color, What’s the Difference?

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