The Ultimate Guide to Colour

paint colours with swatches

Back at school it was as simple as yellow, blue and red. Get a bit crafty, smoosh your fingers around and voila! You’ve got yourself some secondary colours, good for you, now off to recess you go to chow down those vegemite and cheese saos, with a side of choccy milk.

Fast forward to setting up a business in your more mature years, and colours really take on a whole new meaning. Your designer has provided you with print ready files, a bunch of technicolour logos and some rough guidelines as to how to use them. They’re babbling on about RGB, CMYK, PMS and making an awful amount of noise about checking your artwork on the correct kind of screen. Life in black and white would be much more simple, wouldn’t it?

Below is the ultimate guide to understanding colour. I hope it helps ease the pain and suppresses the urge to tell your graphic design to stick it where the colours don’t shine!
First things first, when you’re supplied with your nifty little style guide, it will always include your specific brand colours. Often, each colour will come with three different codes to use, each for a particular design context, eg. One colour code could be for all things digital, but the next would be for all things print. To make sure you get the most out of your colours and to ensure the end result looks just how you’d imagined, we recommend sticking to these guidelines like glue.

So, what are all these codes and do you use them?

  1. RGB – This is how colours are made for computer monitors, screens and all things digital. It’s basically a mix of Red, Green and Blue with over 16,777,216 available colour combinations. RGB colours can vary screen to screen depending on screen brightness, lighting conditions, and hue and contrast settings. We recommend never checking colours for final approvals on your phone or Ipad. Mobile and tablet screens make colours look seriously fluro! Turquoise turns into a sickly lime green, coral turns into hot pink and basically everything looks like a 90’s rave – it’s a design disaster!
  2. CMYK – This is how colours are made for print. Also known as 4 Colour Process, these colours are made from layering combinations of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black (K). If you zoom in on a printed image, you’ll notice lots of tiny dots of colour (CMYK) layered over each other to create other colours. This is the most cost effective and widely used colour space for printing. The outcome of the colours do vary, based on stock, printer quality and type of printer. CMYK is printed using digital printers, and is therefore the cheapest printing option. One major let down though, is that it’s not actually possible to print fluros with CMYK as the inks can’t create super bright colours – so for any neon rave parties, you have to print with PMS!
  3. PMS – stands for Pantone Matching System, also known as a ‘spot’ colour. A pantone colour is a universal colour system, made of a pure solid colour – kind of like a paint swatch from bunnings. Unlike RGB and CMYK colours that are made up of a mix of base colours, Pantones are 100% one colour. This means that no matter what stock, what printer, what country or what designer is working on your project, if you specify what pantone you want, it will always print the exact same. PMS also includes fluro and metallic colours. Pantone colours are much more expensive to use than CMYK because of their ‘purity’ and are only available through offset printing (larger print runs) and letterpress.
  4. COLOUR SPACE – A specific array of colours available in a given colour model. eg. RBG is one colour space. CMYK is another.
  5. COLOUR MATCHING – As you now know, colours for print and colours for web are made up of totally different colour spaces. The art of making your website colours look just like your print colours is called ‘colour matching’. When designing, we try our darndest to play cupid and match your web colours with their perfect print colour partner, but there are always slight discrepancies as it’s near impossible to get an RGB colour to be totally visually in sync with a CMYK.

So what does this all mean? Let us give you a quick rundown of things to keep in mind when choosing and using those all important colours:

  • RBG is used for digital
  • CMYK & PMS are used for print
  • 9 times out of 10, you will print using CMYK, not PMS.
  • There are unavoidable differences in colours used for web and print
  • CMYK colours can vary slightly based on stock, printer quality and printer type
  • RGB colours can vary slightly between different monitors

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