Color Systems & How to Use Them

Color Systems & How to Use Them

There are quite some terms to define color. You may not need all of them, but in today’s world, it’s vital to know the color basics and their differences.

Colors can provoke lots of different emotions. Colors have always been interlinked with branding. Some firms have such a distinctive color usage that you recognize the brand only by color. Do you think you know your way around your color formats in the print and digital worlds and how they represent your brand? Juggling with many different color terms like RGB, RAL, HEX, CMYK it can be a bit of a daunting experience sometimes. Also digital oriented people think of print and color as a scary combination, while print enthusiasts can’t trust digital color definitions. This article will supercharge your color knowledge and help you to work more efficiently with designers, agencies or printing companies.

A Brief Overview of Color Terms

There are quite some terms to define color. You may not need all of them, but in today’s world it’s vital to know the basics and differences of color specs, especially with brands using many different touch points and marketing techniques to reach the intended user/customers and want to keep a consistent brand experience across each medium. Also it might be helpful sometimes to understand the underlying magic of colors when talking about your next marketing campaign with your agency. So let’s dig directly into some of the different color formats you might come across:

  • RGB - stands for Red Green Blue and allows to define a color by combining these three lights in degrees from 0 to 255. With this model you can define up to: 16’777’216 colors. It’s mostly used on device screens such as monitors.
  • RGBA - the same as RGB but adds transparency (0 to 100%) to a color and it’s used primarily in the web industry.
  • HEX - Hexadecimal is another notation for RGB. These are mainly used by web developers for color in digital products
  • CMYK - Cyan Magenta Yellow and Key (black) used in the print world and defines in ranges from 0% to 100% how much of each tone is printed in order to get the desired color. CMYK can only be approximately converted into RGB (depending on the screen settings a blue color might look different on every screen), but a printed blue is exactly defined.
  • PMS - stands for Pantone Matching System, which is a standard for the print industry, just like CMYK. Pantone’s 1114 spot colors are commonly used among designers, since they offer a richer and more vibrant range of tones in comparison to CMYK. They cannot be converted directly to RGB nor can they be simulated by CMYK, as they’re based on 14 specific pigments mixed in specified amounts.
  • RAL - is not a color system but more a color collection, commonly used in Europe and named after the company who defined them. RAL is usually referenced as the RAL classic collection which consists of 213 colors used for powder coating and varnishing on things like van artwork. Their small amount of colors is due to their strict acceptance criteria such as, timelessness, the underlying of public interests, environmental compatibility and distinctiveness from existing colors in the catalogue.

What Color System Do You Need?

With digital printing becoming better and better all of the time for me for small to medium sized print runs in CMYK has been the best color choice, especially if you have got a client that requires a quick turn around on a tight budget.

Although there is still a great deal of benefits that come with using traditional Lithographic techniques like cost on large scale runs. For me and my type of clients digital and CMYK is what I'm working with the most. Lithographic is where the inks are transferred onto four plates to create the image on the paper. As each plate transfers the colors mix to give the desired outcome. Digital transfers the ink as toner and unlike Litho it applies the CMYK colors at the same time.

When it comes to digital although it’s impossible to predict what monitor color settings a user might have on their laptop screen and don’t forget every users eyes might see colors slightly differently, there are ways to ensure that the output is consistent. Even from screen to print you can get pretty good results with consistency. If you want to really brush up give this Digital Arts Blog article a quick read. The article gives some great advice about calibrating the color on your devices. And helps with making sure that you can get your color workflow working as consistent as possible.

Digital is a lot more unpredictable because you have less control over the output of the color of millions of users devices across the globe. Whereas print as long as you follow your guidelines then your final product should be in sync with your brand.

Where to Document It?

So although it is hard to achieve a color heaven across everything if you have solid brand guidelines you can’t go wrong. Here are a few examples of guidelines that clearly show how their brand color should be used.

EasyJet clearly shows how their brands color orange should be used across the different mediums.

Dropbox has a simpler guide and is more digital based but works well. Although they could explain where the color units should be used a little better to help non-experts.

If I had to choose my preference I love working with digital and it’s what I practice most but I still love having something physical to hold. You can't beat receiving something fresh off the press something you can interact with I think this provokes different emotions compared to a screen.

What About Quality Control?

There are some nice tools to help with making sure your designer/brand manager is following its guidelines. Using tools like Pantones Capsure device can help with checking the color of packaging or POS (Point of Sale) Displays. This is extremely useful if you are using a few different suppliers and wishing for a perfect result across all of them. Another advantage is that if you can articulate what you want from your designer/agency in a language they understand then the process will run smoother, quicker and ultimately be more cost effective. It also helps reassure your customers/business that you really care about quality control for their/your brand. But remember this tool is for Pantone colors that fall under print.


A starting point is having a guidelines that are easy to follow about how your logo/brand should be used and what color units are right for each medium. Is your brand ready for whatever new technology has to throw your way?

With new emerging markets like wearables are throwing another dimension in terms of digital design into the mix and digital printing catching up with traditional techniques it’s more important than ever to make sure your brand and knowledge are supercharged.

Is Digital vs Print relevant anymore or should we be seeing these work hand in hand? Perhaps one day we might see some new technology that can sync your brands colors across every possible device and medium with the click of a finger. Until that day we still need to be giving color the upmost respect and attention when it comes to building a meaningful brand. With the speed that technology is going things could change sooner than we think.

Luke Maltby
Luke Maltby
Freelance Digital/Graphic Designer