It may seem like just the boring basics, but with whatever design you’re working on choosing the correct color model is vital. Choosing the wrong one can lead to a lot of limitations as well as a bland looking final product.

One of the basics every designer (in any field) needs to understand straight off the bat is color, after all when designing visually color is a pretty massive aspect behind the look and feel of anything – a website, brochure, logo, etc.  The difference is all in the behavior of a color model – how the mixture for each color is achieved and just as important – the spectrum available.

Here’s a look at the 3 most used color models in the design industry and what they mean for designers.


RGB is short for Red / Green / Blue.

RGB is a color model designed for the light spectrum and works from dark to light (eg. a low value like 0  is dark, and a high value like 255 is light) and is otherwise know as ‘additive’.  All of the colors at full strength create the color white.

RGB uses a combination of Red, Green and Blue lights mixed at different values to create any single colour within it’s spectrum.  This can be seen quite obviously on old CRT style televisions which used RGB strips on each pixel of the image (viewed up close) to mix colour.

RGB is used most commonly for screen oriented media as Computer Monitors, Projectors and Televisions; they all operate using RGB as the color model.  This makes RGB the choice for working on video, websites and anything else viewed primarily on a lit screen.

Even when working with images for print, it can be more beneficial to work within an RGB color model to achieve certain effects before rendering the final image in CMYK for print.  The reason for this is that anytime you work on a project on your computer, regardless of the color model you work in, all of the imagery is converted to RGB to display on your monitor and certain effects are harder to rasterize in CMYK.

But the data kept for certain graphics while printing (especially vector) aren’t served best in RGB – opt for CMYK or pantone for a more controlled final print.


In opposite fashion to RGB, CMYK is primarily an ink color model that works from a light background, darkening the color through a mixture of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black (K).

Cyan, Magenta and Yellow colors without the black ink.

CMYK is best if used only for printable media, and should be used for all vector objects and text within any documents straight from the start.  If working with photos it may be worth working in RGB and converting to CMYK before importing into the final document (as mentioned above in RGB).

There can be a real art top learn in using CMYK for certain aspects of any print design.

When using black text in particular, it pays to use a value of 100% K with 0% C,M & Y (100% black and non of the other inks) to get a  crisp print of the text.  Try overprinting the text if its being printed over any colors or backgrounds.

Understanding the limitations of the CMYK spectrum and what inks mix to achieve certain colors will help you to find a color you are happy with, or identify one you cannot print with CMYK.

Each of the CMYK color inks can mixed to create just about any color. You can create most common colors in the wide CMYK sprectum, but certain bright and fluorescent colors are impossible to do within the CMYK mix, and call for a another level of color matching specific to print – Pantone (aka PMS).

Pantone or PMS

When printing you want to work outside the RGB color spoace, but sometimes CMYK just doesn’t offer certain outstanding colors.  This is where Pantone comes into play.

Pantone colors are a standard mix of inks that can achieve just about any color imaginable.  Using a Pantone color booklet to match up the colors needed you can choose to print certain jobs using PMS colors but generally each color stands on it’s own (it isn’t usually mixed with others to create different colors like CMYK).

This can be effective when mixed with CMYK on an offset printing press.  If you require a print job in full colour that has a certain fluorescent or bright color throughout, you can print the majority of the brochure in CMYK and add a Pantone color to the job to achieve a particular color or look.

Pantone colors are printed mostly on offset printers, as most digital printing machines use CMYK and attempt to  achieve a ‘Pantone Equivalent’ –  a color in the CMYK spectrum that appears as close as possible to the Pantone standard.

Ultimately Pantone color is a model for taking things a step further past CMYK to get achieve brighter colors.

Choosing the right one?

It’s pretty straight forward, RGB is for monitor and TV’s (mostly) while CMYK & Pantone are best suited for printing.

If you’re designing for the internet and social media – go with RGB. But to expand outside of that with print, use CMYK or Pantone if you need a specific color.

The trick is to start using them and gain some experience to better understand their limitations.  A better understanding of how you can use these color models will help you to get the most of your work and achieve the look you’re after on each individual job.