Understanding Industry Lingo – Colour Formats

DO YOU SPEAK DESIGNER? If you are or have ever been part of a group of people, be it in an industry or a hobby, then you have at some stage encountered what is commonly referred to as “Industry Lingo”.

When that industry is new territory for you, not knowing the meaning behind the lingo can present barriers in communication. Navigating the do’s and don’ts, learning the ropes and trying to get your message across clearly can seem daunting.

This is the first in a series of posts that are designed to help you get a grasp on some of the most common industry lingo you will come across when working with a designer, print or digital.

First in the seriesColour formats!

*Click to jump straight to: Swatch | CMYK | Pantone/PMS | RGB | Web Safe

1. Swatch

A swatch, or colour swatch, has been adopted from the original meaning – a small sample of fabric – to also refer to a small sample of colour. Both printers and designers will often have a swatch book or five. A swatch book can be useful when choosing colours or to see the correct representation of your brand colours when printed on a particular paper stock or with a new finish. Swatches are also used to compare CMYK colours with Pantone colours in order to produce a consistent colour using both formats.


CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black. K stands for Key, as in the key colour being black. I have also been told it was so as not to confuse it with B for Blue!

These four colours are the true primary colours, not red, blue and yellow as we learn at school. When referring to printing, these four colours are the names of the four base inks used by a printer. By mixing different percentages of each ink, you can produce a vast array of different colours, allowing the production of full colour printing.

For example: 0% cyan, 70% magenta, 100% yellow and 0% black will give you a lovely orange colour.

Two ways of communicating this colour in writing to a designer are: 0/70/100/0 or c0 m70 y100 k0

So, where and why would you use CMYK colour?

CMYK colour format is used for printing. Both digital and offset printing methods print in CMYK. Today CMYK full colour printing is much cheaper and it is the most common method for small quantity print runs or any printed image that requires full colour such as a photograph.
If your printing requires three or less colours, or large quantity, PMS may be the way to go.

3. PMS / Pantone / Spot Colour

PMS stands for Pantone Matching System. The Pantone Matching System was developed as a way to standardise the production of colour and therefore reduce colour inconsistencies from print to print.

Often referred to as either a Pantone, PMS or Spot Colour, each colour is communicated with a number or a combination of name and number. Pantone 293 could also be referred to as PMS 293 and contains only numbers. Pantone Orange 021 or PMS Orange 021 is an example of name and number combination.

The output of the Pantone colour is also affected by the material it is printed on and the coating (gloss or no gloss) that is applied to it. The letters C and U after the Pantone number indicate if the colour swatch is representing the Pantone printed on a Coated paper (gloss) or Uncoated paper (no gloss). The same Pantone colour can print quite differently on coated vs uncoated stock and sometimes a different Pantones may be used to produce the same colour on different materials.

Examples of Pantone colour swatches:

pantone_2985c-swatch  pantone_806c-swatch  pantone_802c-swatch  pantone_526c-swatch  pantone_021c-swatch

Pantone inks are mixed by hand to a precise formula in order to insure the colour remains consistent each time it is printed. Every time a Pantone colour is used, the printer operator must wash down and change the plates on the printing press before running through another colour. This means that for printing materials that requires full colour or for small quantity printing, using Pantones can be extremely pricy or not viable at all. For example, you would not use Pantone colours to print a full colour photograph. Often if your job involves more than 3 colours, full colour (CMYK) printing will be the better option. If your job is one or two colours, particularly if it is large quantity, using a  colour will be much cheaper, and at the same time give you a more vibrant and consistent colour output.

So, where and why would you use Pantone colour?

Examples of where you would use Pantone colours would be in printing your one or two colour logo onto promotional material such as giveaways like mugs, bottle openers, umbrellas etc. or letterheads and envelopes and other stationery that requires large quantity ordered and a consistency of colour.
Pantone colours are only available with offset printing.


4. RGB

RGB stands for, you guessed it, Red, Blue and Green. These are the 256 colours that your computer screen or digital device is capable of displaying back to you.

RGB colours are produced by light rather than ink and therefore cannot be used for printing. If you supply artwork to a printer in RGB, they will ask you to change it to CMYK or they will simply print it out as is and the printer will convert the colours itself, printing the CMYK representation of the RGB values.

*Tip: For digital printing or printing at home, leaving an image in RGB format for printing will produce brighter, more vibrant colours than converting it to CMYK! For offset printing however, it must be converted to CMYK. 

The same way that a printer cannot print RGB, your digital device cannot display colours on your screen in CMYK. It will do it’s best, however it will not be 100% accurate when compared to the printed version.

There is also the difference of your screen being backlit by a white light, versus a printed image being “backlit” by physical paper. Convert a full colour image from RGB to CMYK and you will see it is visibly duller as the computer screen does it’s best to replicate how the printed image will look when backlit by paper rather than light.

As with all the colour formats, the type of paper or product you are printing onto will also influence the output of the colour.

Wherever possible, it is always handy to get a printed proof (sample), prior to signing off on a big print run to ensure you are happy with the colour output.

So, where and why would you use RGB colour?

RGB is used for all things digital. For displaying images on your website, social media, web-banners and other digital advertisements, RGB is the way to go. Keeping your digital files in RGB will preserve the colour vibrancy as well as help keep the file size down.

5. Web Safe Colours / Hex Colours

Web Safe colours, also known as Hex colours (short for hexadecimal), are 216 of the 256 RGB colours that will safely display consistently on any computer monitor or digital device. Hex colours are represented using the # symbol followed by six numbers and/or letters. For example:

#ffffff is white

#000000 is black

#FF33CC is a nice bright pink colour

So, where and why would you use Web Safe colours?

When designing a website, it is good practice to choose your colour palette from web safe colours, particularly for headings, sub-headings, background colours and other elements that are repeated throughout the site and contribute heavily to the overall look and feel of the design. This ensures your brand colours display as you intend them to across all digital devices.


The above is a brief overview of some of the most common colour formats and terms you will come across when working with a printer or designer. Making the effort to gain an understanding of industry lingo will not only help prevent misunderstandings but also give you a clearer idea of how processes work, why things are the way they are.

Stay tuned for the next in the series on understanding industry lingo where I will cover some of the different printing methods and artwork specification requirements.

Have you come across any colour formats not mentioned above that you didn’t understand? Have you ever had a funny misunderstanding due to industry lingo? Share you stories in the comments below!

Happy Learning!


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