The difference between mystical color modes: RGB, CMYK, PANTONE?

Difference between different color modes RGB CMYK and PANTONE

I know that when I got really interested into design world the terms RGB and CMYK where popping at me over & over again. The basic information I understood right away was that RGB color mode is used for designing files that will be used on screen (in internet world) and CMYK is dedicated for real print design. 

That was enough for some time, but going deeper into design I just had to learn the truth behind those letters, yes??? Also what the hell is PANTONE? I thought that was only some company manufacturing paints for wall painting... 

So you see where I'm going... It is more than necessary to understand the foundations of the field you are going to. Because only then you can really understand what you are doing and avoid stupid mistakes. Those can cost a lot of time & money, my friend.

This post is for every newbie or self-learner designer who knows basics but would love to dive deeper into this design ocean. Also, for people who aren't designers but plan on working with one and would like to understand some of the mystical and really important words!

Infograph by Laura Bei about the difference between different color modes RGB, CMYK, PANTONE.png


Goes for Red (R), Green (G), Black (B)

RGB color mode uses three colors, or channels, to reproduce colors on screen. It is designed for computer, TV screens, as well as mobile device screens. The tiny dots that make up our displays are composed of RGB information. 

Because of reduced file size RGB color mode is easy to use on web & at the same time it still maintains high color integrity.  Also, this mode is based on additive color system which means that the primary colors are added together in various combinations to produce a much wider spectrum of colors. Without any intensity, each of those colors will be perceived as black, while full intensity will make them appear white.

As a general rule of thumb, the RGB color system should be used only in digital designs. This includes designing websites, imagery and graphics for use on websites and social media.

If you want to use those designs in print, you will have to convert it to the CMYK color system.


Cyan (C), Magenta (M), Yellow (Y), Black (K)

Black, in this case, is referred to as key because it is used in the key plate which is responsible for adding the contrast and the detail for the final image. The CMYK color system is most commonly referred to as the four-color process because it uses four different colors to produce different hues. The black color here is used because the other three colors combined can't produce a fully saturated black.

Unlike the RGB color system, CMYK is a subtractive color model because the printed ink reduces the light that would normally be reflected. The inks used subtract the brightness from a white background from those four colors.

The CMYK colors are mixed during the printing process which can sometimes cause minor inconsistencies. For that reason, you should always look at the printed proof of a project before going through with the full print run.

CMYK is the recommended color system for any material that will be printed. This includes business cards, brochures, letterheads, and any other business collateral.

Converting an RGB image into CMYK creates a color separation. Many professional printers or publishers require that images for print must be converted to CMYK. This is because the RGB color spectrum (displays) is much more wide then the CMYK spectrum (ink) and during conversion from RGB to CMYK, the appearance of certain colors may look different.


When working on your print design don't forget to convert your images from RGB to CMYK. If you forget to do this the print result can surprise you. When images are converted to CMYK you can see the real view (how the colors will look like in print) and make the adjustments if necessary. 


  • According to Adobe Photoshop guide if you start with an RGB image, it’s best to edit first in RGB and then convert to CMYK at the end of your editing process. In RGB mode, you can use the Proof Setup commands to simulate the effects of a CMYK conversion without changing the actual image data.
  • A gamut is the range of colors that a color device can display or print. The phrase out of gamut refers to a range of colors that cannot be reproduced within the CMYK color space. In simple words it just means that area is over saturated. To check if all your CMYK colors are mixed in the right way click View >> Gamut Warning (for Photoshop / InDesign / Illustrator). This mode will mark out of gamut colors. 
  • To have a quick fix just open swatches palette and then double click on the color that is out of gamut. The color panel will open and you will see a yellow warning sign with exclamation mark there. If you click on it the color will change to the nearest neighbour that will be in gamut. Of course you can also adjust this change manually. 


The Pantone Color Matching System is largely a standardized color reproduction system. By standardizing the colors, different manufacturers in different locations can all refer to the Pantone system to make sure colors match without direct contact with one another.

PMS colors are almost always used in branding and have even found their way into government legislation and military standards! This color system also allows for many special colors to be produced, such as metallics and fluorescents & most of the Pantone system colors are beyond the printed CMYK gamut.

This is literally a paint bucket that's used in print design. On screen digital color simulations do not match the physical Pantone Color Standards. You must refer to Pantone Color publications to obtain actual physical color standards. 


When creating your print design in a certain color mode make sure that you are not using mixed colors. Always check the swatches palette to see if the right colors are chosen.

If the design is supposed to be printed in PANTONE color mode all the colors used in your design must be from this color range! Other way you will get errors and the printer will not accept your file. Time will be wasted on fixing these mistakes.


Using the correct color mode for your projects saves you time and it also helps your final project to look as intended whether you use it on the web or in print. You’ll also be able to spot any potential issues with your design and correct them.

Hope that this article helped to shed some light on these different color modes! When you form a correct basic understanding of design terms everything else will fall into place.

Use the right color mode for the particular project and get the best results possible!

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