True colours

Graphic Designer and Logo Designer Geelong

Good colour management is vital to creating consistent designs and materials for your business. But getting the right colour will depend on what colour system you are using, what printing method is used, what stock you are printing on and whether your materials will be viewed online or in hard copy.

Understanding colour systems

Your graphic designer will often refer to colour in terms of CMYK, RGB, and Pantone (or PMS). But you might ask, “What do the terms mean and which colour type should I use?”

To answer this question, it is useful to define each colour type as follows:


CMYK refers to the four ink colours used in Process Colour printing:

  1. Cyan (a light blue)
  2. Magenta (a pinkish red)
  3. Yellow, and
  4. Black.

The four colour printing process is universally used in the graphic arts and commercial printing industry for the reproduction of colour images and text. Four colour printing (process colour), is achievable in offset, flexo, screen printing and more common for smaller print runs, and digital printing.

The introduction of CMYK digital print has meant that the affordability of full colour printing has reduced dramatically. Quality continues to improve with technological advancements. This is most evident with small business and home offices printing on their desktop printer using the CMYK process. Most of the entire spectrum or gamut of colours are reproduced with just the four process ink colours.


RGB stands for Red, Green, Blue. These are the colours you see when you look at images on your computer screen or at photos taken with your digital camera. These colours or the use of RGB is also seen on your TV monitors. The colours are made up of a combination of these three hues. In process colour printing, these colours need to be converted to CMYK.


The Pantone Matching System (PMS) offers greater colour accuracy. Pantone colours are mixed to precise, pre-set specifications, which are printed each year in official colour matching guides. You can consult these books to see exactly what the final colour will look like in advance. It’s a lot like going to the paint store and specifying colours for your home from sample paint swatches – you know what you’re going to get. So, if colour accuracy is important to you, then selecting your Pantone colours at the outset is a very wise move.

Pantone colour is printed using Offset/Litho/Flexo/Screen Press Printing or Offset Printing methods, which is often a little more expensive than digital printing due to the initial set up required. However, if getting the right colour is important, then press or offset printing is a worthwhile investment.

Some colours are difficult to achieve through process colour printing (especially oranges and some greens), so using a Pantone colour ensures a perfect and consistent colour match. Jobs can be printed on 5 or 6 colour presses using the four process colours plus one or two spot (Pantone) colours in order ensure an exact colour match.

Print and screen colour variation

It’s important to recognise one of the major differences between CMYK and RGB.

CMYK colours work by “subtracting” or absorbing light reflected from a white piece of paper. With no ink on the paper, all of the light is reflected back to the eye and the paper appears white.

RGB colours, on the other hand, are additive colours. Your computer monitor is black and light is added to produce colour. White is produced when all three colours are added at a density of 100%.

Due to the two different colour standards, colours will appear very different on your monitor than they will on paper after being printed. No two monitors illustrate colour exactly the same, which further complicates colour design and printing.

Because what is seen on the monitor is not the same as the printed page, designers often use Pantone colours as a standardized point of reference. Then, depending on whether the piece will be used on the web or as a printed piece, they convert the pantone colours to RGB or CMYK.

How can I be sure that my colours are correct for print and web?

From a graphic designer’s viewpoint, it is always best to know what your Pantone colours are from the start. For example, your business logo will typically use 2-3 colours and it’s helpful to know what Pantone colours make up your logo.

A graphic designer can accurately convert Pantone colours if needed to CMYK for print and RGB for online materials, to ensure colour consistency of your brand. Converting back to Pantone from CMYK or RGB is always more difficult and does not always result in accurate colour printing results.

Specific Pantone or PMS (Pantone Matching System) colours selected are perfect for your letterhead, business card, presentation folder or envelope, when printed using offset printing. It is important to remember that there will be a difference between these materials and what you see on your monitor or when creating a submission using Microsoft Word (which both create it’s colours out of RGB).

Likewise, your printed colours are sure to look different again when you print on recycled or environmentally friendly stock that has an off-white colour with speckles through it.

Coated or uncoated?

The richness or accuracy of your colours will differ depending on the paper or stock you are printing on.  Coated papers have a smooth finish, where the paper is pressed and polished while hot or steamed during the manufacturing process. This coating makes the paper less absorbent and takes ink better. Think of it as the coat of primer you’d use before painting your walls.

Uncoated paper is just that; paper without the coated layer. It’s often used for letterhead, printer paper and photocopy paper. Uncoated paper is more absorbent and therefore soaks up some of the ink when printed – like painting a wall without primer!

The darker your colours, the more difference you will notice between the two colours. In fact, some graphic designers will go as far as to choose different spot colours for their files, depending on the stock that’s used or the medium chosen (TV, Web Monitor).

Ask your printer for a hard copy proof

To ensure that your colour expectations are met when printing, ask your printer for a hard copy proof to sign off on. This will allow you to check the colours properly and will ensure that your printer is able provide exactly what you want.

However, sometimes proofs are sent via email, especially when purchasing printed materials from online printing suppliers.  This will mean that you will be reviewing the colours on your computer screen.  Remember, that every screen is different and often your screen will not be showing you the true final colour of your printed materials.  In this case, make sure that your printer knows your Pantone or CMYK colours and that this is acknowledged on the electronic proof.

So, to summarize, CMYK, RGB, and Pantone refer to three different types of colour standards used in the design and printing industries. While it may sound confusing at first, it makes sense to those who work with it on a regular basis. Contact Martlette’s graphic designer or a printer like Geelong Print Solutions if you have questions about the right way to use these colour standards and they’ll be glad to help you.

When engaging the services of a graphic designer for the design of your visual brand, consider all of the media that it will be displayed in, taking that into consideration how your logo colours will look when printed in Pantone, printed as CMYK and displayed on a monitor using RGB. Will your materials be printed on a gloss coated paper, printed on a matt coated paper, printed on a board that is brown in colour and so on, and so on. Understanding your brand and your target audience will assist greatly in ensuring that your graphic designer is able to give a thoughtful approach to your designs and how they may be used across a multitude of media.

Martlette offers everything from print designs like brochures and business cards, to website and digital design, signage and more. Browse our Geelong graphic design services page to read the full extent of what we offer.