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If you're not a printer or a designer, colours may seem complicated, but if you remember a few key points you'll have enough information to make sure your suppliers (sign writers, printers, web designers) always represent your brand accurately and consistently, when it comes to colour.

The first thing  you need to keep in mind is that colour on screen is different to colour in print. If you’re reading this from a screen the colour variations you’ll see are created by mixing different colours of light. But if you’ve printed it out and you’re looking at a piece of paper, the colours will have been made up by mixing dark inks together. 100% saturation of screen colour therefore equals (bright) white, 100% saturation of ink colour is (dark) black.

So because colour is made differently when it’s on screen to the way it’s put together on paper the formulas that are used are different too.

There are four main colour specifications that you’re likely to see: RGB, Hex #, CMYK and Spot Colour/PMS

Screen colours – RGB and Hex

  • RGB – this is a screen colour specification. R = Red, G = Green, B = Blue. Mix all three together at maximum saturation and you’ll get white
  • Hex (a shortening of hexadecimal) is a screen colour specification. It’s the way that RGB codes are often expressed on the web. Hex codes are always made up of a # followed by six numbers, digits or a combination of numbers and digits. Don't worry too much about the numbers, they're just the way that your computer interprets colours. It’s good to know both the RGB and the hex value for a particular colour so you can specify it in any software.

Print colours – CMYK and Spot Colour/PMS

  • CMYK – this is a print colour specification . C = Cyan, M = Magenta, Y = Yellow, K = Key (key actually means black and is a reference to the ‘key plate’ used in traditional printing methods).
  • Spot colour/PMS – this is a print colour specification. Printers and designers talk about ‘spot colours’ and they’re generally referring to the most commonly used PMS - Pantone Matching System (other spot colour systems are available). This is a very accurate way to reproduce printed colour as printers are required to match a physical set of cards. However, these days it’s less commonly used as CMYK printing can be very accurate and it’s also a much more cost effective way to print. Some colours happen to be difficult to create using CMYK print, eg bright orange, bright green and special colours like metallic or fluorescent, if you need these colours printed you might need to invest in spot colour.

So, colour talk may sound like a different language, but just remember these key points:

  1. Screen and print colour is specified differently
  2. Screen colour is made by mixing coloured light, print colour is made by mixing coloured ink
  3. If accurate colour representation is important, eg for a logo, make sure you note all the formulas and use them consistently – RGB or Hex for screen and CMYK or PMS for print