Colour in a Digital World

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder they say, but what they don’t say is that colour is also in the eye of the beholder. Most people see colour in the basic terms – they will say things like “I like the colour red”, “grass is green”, “the sky is blue”. But colour in a digital world (and in the real world) has many variations of each and every colour imaginable. Are dark blue and navy blue the same colour, and where does royal blue come into the equation?

For printers, web designers, manufacturers and many industries that are responsible for reproducing exact colours for customers, there can be a lot of misunderstandings on what the correct colour is when discussing projects that involve very specific colour combinations.

To better understand colours in the digital and print world, let’s first understand these basics. The 3 most popular and widely used terms when it comes to colour accuracy in print and on-line are CMYK, RGB and PANTONE or SPOT colours. But do you know what they mean?

Colour in digital and print

The 3 most popular and widely used terms when it comes colour accuracy in print and online are CMYK, RGB and PANTONE or SPOT colours. But do you know what they mean?

Let’s start with the acronyms and a bit of information.

  1. CMYK
    This is a colour system which uses 4 basic colours to make up over 10 million different colours. The CMYK colours are Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black.What???    How does K represent black?

    This is definitely a topic for another blog, but one theory is that it is the K in black.  Another school of thought is that cyan, magenta, and yellow printing plates are carefully keyed, or aligned, with the key of the black key plate in four-color printing.

  2. RGB
    The RGB colour model is what is known as an additive colour model in which red, blue and green colours are added together in various increments to create a large variety of colours. RGB stands for Red, Green and Blue. Only three colours are used to make up 16 million colours. Each parameter (red, green, and blue) defines the intensity of the colour as an integer between 0 and 255.A colour in the RGB colour model is described by indicating how much of each of the red, green, and blue is included.

    The colour is expressed as an RGB triplet (r,g,b), each component of which can vary from zero to a defined maximum value. If all the components are at zero the result is black; if all are at maximum the result is the brightest representable white.

    Pantone colours are also known as spot colours and the Pantone Matching System or PMS. PMS is a largely standardized colour reproduction system; standardizing the colours allows manufacturers in different locations to quickly and easily match colours by referring to the Pantone system.The most commonly referenced colours are in the Pantone solids palette and consist of 1,114 spot colours.

Who uses what colour?

  • CMYK colours are used by most colour ink jet and laser printers.

    When you change the inks or toners in your home or office colour printer, you might have to change 2 or 4 inks or toners depending on your make and model of printer. Some inkjet printers have only two cartridges namely a black ink and a combination cyan, magenta and yellow ink. Some newer inkjet printers come with 4 ink cartridges that are replaced as they run out, so if yellow runs out first you only need to change the yellow ink cartridge.

    Laser colour printers come with 4 toners, each toner cartridge holds one of the CMYK colours.

  • RGB is primarily used in devices such as video, cameras, TVs, laptop screens, computer monitors and scanners.

    All colour in these devices is made up of a mix of the 3 colours and then the intensity of each of these colours. These devices see the colour orange, for example, as a numeric representation like this: 255, 165, 0. This tells the device to have RED set at a maximum value of 255, the GREEN set to 165, and not to add any BLUE.

  • Pantone colours are used in the printing industry, manufacturing sectors etc.

    The idea behind the PMS is to allow designers to “colour match” specific colours when a design enters production stage, regardless of the equipment used to produce the colour.

    The Pantone system also allows for many special colours to be produced, such as metallics and fluorescents.

Why does this colour system matter?

Simply put, choosing the correct colour for a project, design or campaign gets more complicated when you are using 3 different colour technologies.

By this I mean you are looking at a colour image of your print project on a screen that uses RGB, with a jpeg image which uses CMYK coloring, for a print job that uses Pantone colours. Each colour scheme distorts the final artwork output.

Hopefully, you see the dilemma.

Let’s put this into something of more value after all a picture is worth a 1000 words. Here are 3 Pantone colours taken off the Pantone website. I have chosen red, blue and green.

Pantone Colour Swatch JHL

Just remember, your monitor, my monitor, the monitor sitting next to your desk will all represent the colours differently… go on I know you want to take a look. So load this page up on as many different computers as you can to see what I mean.

As you can see here the colours I have chosen also show the codes for the different formats that can be used in print, on screen, digital etc. These being CMYK, RGB, PANTONE and HTML.

Here are the colour samples of the colours in each of the different formats.

Print this on a couple of different colour printers and see the results.

What you see is not always what you get

So what you see on screen or in your emailed proofs of colours for your project don’t necessarily show the true final colour output once printed. What you see is not always what you get. Likewise what your home or office printer prints will probably not be 100% the same as the final digital or litho print.

Leave us a comment and tell us about your results and experiences.



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