The Basics of Color in Design

A brief note about the science… All color is basically about light—and light makes it possible to see color. The science of color and how the human eye perceives color is a very complicated subject of which I am not an expert. I understand all the aspects needed for what I do in the field of design.

CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Key Black)

CMYK is a subtractive color model—the mixing of inks, paints, or dyes to create a full range of colors. Subtractive color is the absorbing (or subtracting) of certain wavelengths of light and reflecting the others that creates the colors that we see. In this model when you have 0% of each color you get white and when you have 100% of each color you get black.

How to remember this: Paper is usually WHITE, so the absence of color results in a white surface. The presence of all color results in black.

Common Uses: CMYK is used in printing and often referred to as “4-Color” printing. In the case of 4-Color, the printer is using all four inks to create a rainbow of colors to be used for imagery and text. Common office printers often use CMYK in basically the same way. The inks are added in dots or lines to create the colors needed.


RGB (Red, Green, Blue)

RGB is an additive color model—varying levels of red, green, and blue light being emitted (or added) directly from a source to create a range of colors. In this model when you have 0% of each color you get black and when you have 100% of each color you get white.

How to remember this: When a computer monitor or TV is off, the screen is black. There is an absence of light, so what you are left with is black. So if you add in all the colors of light you get white.

Common Uses: RGB is used in computer monitors, televisions, and projectors. This color mode should be used for all imagery being displayed online or in projected presentations.

PMS (Pantone Matching System)

Pantone Matching System is a proprietary color space created by Pantone Inc. used primarily for offset printing, though sometimes PMS is used in the manufacturing of colored paint, fabric, and plastics. Pantone Inc. has created a large palette (well over 1,000 colors) of standardized inks that can be used to ensure perfectly matching colors every time. These colors include fluorescent and metallic inks that cannot be reproduced with 4-color process.

Common Uses: PMS is used in offset printing and is often referred to as “Spot Color”. Where CMYK involves 4 colors, PMS inks can be used for a 1-color print job. This is often seen for business stationery or things of that nature. It is common for specific PMS colors to be chosen as part of a company’s brand identity.

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