RGB, CMYK and Pantone – What’s the difference?

RGB, CMYK and Pantone – What’s the difference?

The difference between RGB, CMYK and Pantone colours may seem insignificant, but it’s hugely important to know what each are when designing for print and web! The main difference between the three comes from the intended use of your design. 

Here’s a very basic breakdown:

  • RGB – are colours used for web projects.
  • CMYK – are colours used in print.
  • Pantone – (technically Pantone Matching System, PMS for short) is largely a standardised colour reproduction system, e.g. there is a special subset of Pantone colours that can be reproduced using CMYK.

Now let’s explore each one in more detail.

RGB (which stands for Red, Green, Blue) is the default colour spectrum in use for screen viewing and the web. This is because screens begin as black boxes, then emit light as colour is added. 

Since colour has to be added to the screens to turn them into another colour besides black, RGB works as an additive colour spectrum – certain degrees of the three main colours are added to the screen in order to create the colours you’re looking at.

Each RGB colour is written as three values inside a set of parentheses, which look like: “()”. For example, the colour red on the RGB colour spectrum is listed as (255, 0, 0). This means that the red is boosted to 100% density, while the blue and green have been reduced to zero. If you were boost all three colours to 100% density: (255, 255, 255), you end up with white. 

Sometimes there is also a 4th number added. This is for the transparency of the colour, with 1 being opaque and 0 being completely transparent. For example, if we wanted our red RGB colour to have a transparency of 50%, it would be written like this: (255, 0, 0, 0.5).

Unlike RGB, CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black – known as Key) is the baseline when it comes to print. It also works in an opposite way to RGB – while the goal of RGB is to be an additive colour spectrum, CMYK instead works as a subtractive colour space.

The goal of CMYK is not to add colour to a black screen. Instead, you’re subtracting the amount of light being reflected by a white piece of paper. By adding variations of cyan, magenta and yellow ink to absorb light, you’re subtracting the types of light waves being reflected back to your eye.

When cyan, magenta and yellow are combined together, they absorb all light, making the paper appear black. To save cost on ink, and to produce deeper black tones, dark colours can be produced by using black ink instead of the combination of cyan, magenta, and yellow.


Pantone is actually a company. They are best known for their Pantone Matching System (PMS). Much like the CMYK colour wheel, PMS colours are used as part of the ink mixing process for print design. However, where CMYK is used simply as a way to render colours for print, the Pantone Matching System is intended to be a way for printers to replicate tones and colours using a standard guideline.

Because of this ability to achieve and preserve consistency, Pantone colours can be used as a baseline for everything from company logos and trademarks, to national and state flags. While Pantone colours can be built with a four-colour mix (like CMYK), this often results in a colour shift like the one below.

To examine things a little further, you can see that the Pantone colour listed as “Pantone 3278 C” has two values listed – the three numbers for an RGB colour code, and the hexadecimal code for HTML and web colours. Whereas, the colour on the right, “Pantone 3278 CP”, has four values listed – one each for cyan, magenta, yellow and black.

Pantone 3278 C is also much darker than Pantone 3278 CP. This is because of the difference between the two types of inks. CMYK inks are meant to be combined with each other, so they’re transparent. PMS inks are meant to stand alone, so Pantone inks are made to be opaque.

You might now be wondering: if Pantone inks are opaque, why do companies use them for company colours? Well, simply because of the opaqueness and brightness of Pantone inks when compared to CMYK colours. 

If you look at the example swatch above again, you can see how much brighter the regular Pantone swatch is compared to the Pantone CMYK swatch (on the right). This consistent colour brightness can be maintained across mediums. 

Starting from a Pantone swatch means you don’t have to worry about whether you’re picking the right shade of green. All of the information is listed on the swatch. That’s why many large companies choose their company colours using Pantone colours first, then expand outward to use RGB, CMYK or hexadecimal values.

Implementing the colour spectrums in a project

Now you have some knowledge about the different colour spectrums that exist and the main differences between them, how do you go about using that knowledge in a project?

Having this knowledge makes it much easier to ensure that you’re sending the right types of files to the right people. If you’re working with a web designer, you now know to send that person all the colours they’re looking for as a trio of RGB numbers. Whereas if you’re having something designed for print, it’ll need to be CMYK or your Pantone colour of choice.

You might also be wondering if you can convert between all the different colour formats? If all you have are the CMYK values or the Pantone swatch, converting them to RGB or a hex code is pretty easy. In the case of the Pantone swatch, the RGB colours and the HTML hex code are listed on the swatch.

For everything else, Rapid Tables has this great CMYK to RGB converter so that you can take all of your print colours and convert them seamlessly into colours that are suitable for the web. For converting from CMYK to Pantone colours, there are tools in most graphic design programs that do this for you.

Using all colour models is a must when you’re trying to design a brand that looks continuous no matter where it’s displayed.

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