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Colour types and why you need them

Aimée Colley

Designer at Shaw

As an accompaniment to my last blog Logo file types and why you need them? I thought I’d also cover one of the other topics there can be a bit of confusion around – colour types and why you need them.

Upon completion of a branding project you should be issued with a set of brand guidelines that go through your new colour palette and list their values so that going forward anyone who designs or uses your brand is consistent with the colours they use (check out our blog on why that’s important here). But why do you need Pantone references, CMYK values, RGB values or HEX values. And what are they all for?

What are Pantones? And why would I want Pantone references in my brand guidelines?

Pantones are standardised coloured inks used for printing design industry wide (and world-wide!) In 1963 Pantone introduced the Pantone Matching System which began with 500 colours and today includes over 1,867 colours including metallics and neon. Using Pantones helps ensure brands have consistent colours across different materials, whether that’s in merchandise, textiles, paint or print.

You might see designers pull out a Pantone colour book (which is similar to the paint swatches you get at B&Q!) when picking a colour for a branding job, and flick through it, so they can get a sense of the printed colour, rather than just looking at it on-screen. These printed colours are more consistent than CMYK, so might be the preference for businesses printing the same item in lots of different office locations.

The drawback to using Pantones is that they can be more costly to print than CMYK as you pay per colour. So a print run of a brochure with only two Pantone colours might be cost effective, but a brochure with twelve colours may prove better value printed in CMYK. Pantones also have to be printed on Lithographic printers with plates, so print runs usually need to be higher to be cost effective.

Pantone colours are great to have to hand, they just aren’t always practical to use day-to-day. Instead you’d turn to CMYK…

Why do I need CMYK values and what are they?

When dealing with any other print that doesn’t exclusively use Pantones, you need to use the CMYK values.

CMYK stands for cyan, magenta, yellow and key (or black) and are the colour values used in most printing. If you’re printing big quantities on a Lithographic printer the colour is applied with four plates, one prints the cyan, one prints the magenta, one prints the yellow and the other prints the black.

If you use RBG colours in a print job you risk getting unexpected results as the printer tries to figure out what CMYK colour is the best match. A light blue RGB colour might end up darkening quite substantially when converted by the printer to CMYK – using CMYK colours from the start means no unexpected results.

When do I use RGB?

RGB values should be used for any digital work and online. The screen displaying the image mixes red, green and blue with varying intensities to make the colour. Because you’re manipulating light, and its saturation RGB colours can look much more vibrant than CMYK colours and it’s possible to create more colours.

What about hex colours?

Hex colours are six digit combinations of letters and numbers and are most commonly used by website developers when coding. You’d never use them for print – like RGB they’re colours exclusively for on-screen viewing.

They’re handy to include in brand guidelines as when editing websites or email templates they’re the quickest value to copy and paste.

If there’s anything we can help you with on this issue, please do get in touch on