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Getting colour jargon right

Updated: Jul 19, 2022

Life is better in colour so know your jpegs from your pngs, cmyk from rgb

Here’s a guide to always being seen in your best colour

When designers start talking colour you first get excited as you imagine your beautiful new logo in the best places, always standing proud. You soon descend into confusion as they explain that different mediums (print, web and screen) require different colour technology and there’ll be small discrepancies between the colours no matter how hard you try and how anal they are. Your eyes dull into colour blindness when they begin to talk stock (paper), 4 colour process and HEX codes. Suddenly you feel like hexing your talented designer. This is your entree into the world of colour jargon.

Your designer will supply you with a colour palette that comes with your Brand Assets. Your palette is your specific brand colours so you ensure consistency in reproducing your logo and brand look and feel every time.

Each colour will come with four different codes, each to be used for a particular design context. Once more context trumps content. There’ll be a colour code for all things digital, another for all things 4 colour print, another for screen. Remember the whole reason your designer kept harping on about you needing a brand quide was to create a brand system when creating your marketing collateral or branded materials. Think of this guide your brand police. Stick to these guidelines to the letter of the law.

This brief overview is enough but there’s more detail below if you want to get all nerdy with me.

  • RGB (Red/Green/Blue) is used for digital screens

  • CMYK (Cyan/Magenta/Yellow/Black) and

  • PMS (Pantone Matching System) are used for print. For printing 99 times out of 100, you’ll be using CMYK, not PMS. CMYK and PMS colours can vary slightly based on stock, printer quality, printer type. Offset printing (done by a printer) is most accurate.

Please note that difference in colours used for web and print just can’t be avoided. RGB colours can vary slightly between different monitors

So if you want to go deeper here's your ultimate guide to understanding colour so you’ll be able to hold your own with the best of us. So, Let me break down the codes and when you use them

  • RGB – (Red/Green/Blue) is used for digital screens with over 16+ million available colour combinations, so as you can imagine they can vary monstrously from screen to screen depending on brightness, lighting conditions, colour hue and contrast settings. Can I forcefully suggest never checking final approvals for colour on your phone or iPad. Mobile can make colours look super fluoro! Turquoise turns limey green, Coral become hot flamingo pink and the overall look is more psychedelic than Studio 54 ever was. Designer hangover! Pass the fluoro Beroccas

  • CMYK – Think rolling print presses. Also known as 4 Colour Process. Achieved by combining varying percentages of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black (K); it produces every colour imaginable by layering tiny dots of colour over each other. If you zoom in on a printed image, you’ll see these tiny dots of colour layered over each other. This is the most cost effective and widely used colour space for printing. Remember that the paper (stock) you print on affects the results. Some absorb more of the ink than others and others spread the dots, and then you have to consider the machinery and method of printing. CMYK is used for digital printers, and is often the cheapest printing option. One big limitation here though is that CMYK dulls the colours a little so for 'spot on' specific colours you will need to print spot colours which brings us to PMS.

  • PMS – Pantone Matching System, also known as ‘spot’ colour is a universal colour matching system. The colours are made up individually to match your swatch think of driving the paint man at Porters Paints mad (I've done this :-) as you say it’s between this and that as you hand him paint swatches. Pantones are their own special thing, 100% of one colour. You’ll use this if you are absolutely sure you want a particular colour and you can match it no matter what stock or printing method. PMS also includes spot on fluoro and metallic colours. Beware these PMS or spot colours will cost you more and can only be used in offset printing. Think larger runs and letterpress for super bespoke projects.

  • COLOUR SPACE – Colour space means the use of a specific colour model or system that turns colours into numbers for accuracy in reproduction. Yes, it's mathematics again. Each colour model is a method of creating many colours from a small group of primary colours. Each model has a range of colours it can produce. That range is the colour space. RGB is one colour space. CMYK is another. HEX codes are another. This specifies the colour model you are using.

  • COLOUR MATCHING – Because of course different colour spaces produce their colours differently. Ensuring your website colours look just like your print colours is called ‘colour matching’. Your designer will be neurotic here so you don’t need to be. This is tweaking the colour percentages in each space to find their perfect print/web/screen colour partner, but be warned to expect slight variations as no matter how fussy your designer is and no matter how many planets and stars are aligned, it’s nigh on impossible to make an RGB colour be completely, exactly and perfectly the same in CMYK.

Welcome to colour world. You're now initiated :-)

image by Katya Austin via Unsplash

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