Color Basics for Branding — Part #1: Color Models

 RGB. CMYK. Hexadecimal. Pantone. Confused by color terminology? We’re here to break it down to the very basics so you can better communicate with your graphic designer or web developer.

CMYK = Cyan + Magenta + Yellow + Black

In this subtractive, reflected color system, you start with white (paper) and add colors (ink) to produce darker shades. When you have C=0, M=0, Y=0, K=0, then you have pure white. The maximum number for each value is 100(%), so when you have C=100, M=100, Y=100, K=100, then you have pure black.

Printers apply different percentages of cyan, magenta, yellow and black ink on paper to create colors; this is why it’s called 4-color printing. So if you’re creating a brochure or trade show display or any other printed collateral, your final files will use the CMYK color mode.

RGB = Red + Blue + Green

In this additive, projected color system, you start with darkness and add light to produce colors. When you have R=0, G=0, B=0, then you have black. The maximum number for each color value is 255, so when you have R=255, G=255, B=255, then you have white. (Think of it like night vs. day…when there’s no light, it’s pitch black outside; when there’s lots of sunshine, it’s a blinding white light.)

Most screens, such as computer monitors, phone displays and televisions, are RGB. So if you’re creating graphics for the web or producing a TV commercial, your final file will use the RGB color mode.


Hexadecimal (or hex) is a positional numeral system with a base of 16, meaning that it uses 16 symbols. Most often, numbers 0-9 represent values zero to nine and the letters A-F represent values ten to fifteen. Just like RGB, the minimum value of #000000 is black and the maximum value of #ffffff is white.

Hex codes are used by developers to represent colors in digital applications. So if you’re redesigning you website, your web developer will be using hex values to create colors.

PMS = Pantone Matching System

Pantone, Inc. has been the leader in color standardization since they launched their Pantone Matching System (PMS) in the 1960s. Designers use their well-known swatch books to pick from thousands of colors, which can then be replicated identically by printers around the world. (In traditional 4-color printing, each piece of equipment or brand of ink could produce slightly different shades of the same CYMK value.) Pantone colors are labeled with a three- or four-digit number, followed by a letter: C for coated paper, U for uncoated paper or M for matte paper.

While most standard PMS colors can be replicated at a lower cost using traditional CMYK printing, Pantone does offer special inks, like metallics and fluorescents, that can’t be produced using a 4-color process.

Pantone colors are most useful when establishing a core color palette for branding purposes. So if a graphic designer is designing your new identity system, he/she will likely establish Pantone values for your logo (even if you never print using the more expensive ink).


Next up in our “Color Basics for Branding” blog series? Understanding warm vs. cool colors and how they can convey important emotions about your brand.