What's the Difference Between PMS, CMYK and RGB Colors?

color profilesBefore you reach out to a designer or graphic artist, you need to consider a few things. First, you must know what you want from them, which you can show with a sample image or existing product. Second, what kind of image or content you need regarding color, format and size.

Format and size are best left to the designer, as they’ll make sure you’re taken care of, provided you offer the right details. The color profile you need for the image, however, should be designated on your end. If you happen to be a graphic artist or designer, then you need to know what each of the profiles is used for.

Either way, you better know the difference.

How Do I Know Which Color Profile to Choose?

To be perfectly honest, unless you’ve been working with these profiles for years you’re not going to know the difference just by looking at them. You will, however, be able to detect what profile is used thanks to image editing and software tools.

Three major color profiles — Pantone Matching System (PMS), 4-Color or Process (CMYK) and Red, Green and Blue (RGB) — are used for most projects, though more color profiles are available.

Each profile is different and has a unique purpose. In other words, depending on what you’re going to be using your image for — printing on fabrics, for instance — one color profile might be a better choice than another.

As for which one you need to use for a specific project, it’s a matter of knowing what sets them apart and what they’re best for:


CMYK — often referred to as full process or process — is full-color printing. The C stands for Blue, M for Magenta, Y for Yellow, and K for Black. You’ll notice the K seems out of place, as does the C for Blue. Their naming in CMYK is because both colors start with the letter “b” and things would get confusing for everyone real fast as a result.

This color profile is often associated with pixelation. Rather than shade the entire image with various colors, each point, or dot, receives a color saturation. For every possible pixel in a picture, the system decides a certain percentage of each of the four colors.

Because of how detailed you can get, and how incredibly fine those individual points are, the CMYK profile is best for full-color printing. That includes photos, documents, images and more.

It’s safe to say that in most cases, you will need to use this color profile.


RGB is the color profile used with TVs, computer monitors, video content and most web graphics. As you may have guessed, RGB stands for Red, Blue and Green and denotes the three primary colors used

For many applications and modern devices, this color palette is outdated. That’s because a vast majority of modern devices are capable of displaying high-resolution content well above this profile’s capabilities.

Until recently, this was the most common color profile used and is considered by many to be safe, but that’s not always the case. Because of how monitors and electronics work, one color may look different across systems even with the same amount red, green and blue shading.

If you’re using the RGB color profile, you can use a conversion tool to swap between the RGB and CMYK color palettes.


The Pantone Matching System is a color profile comprised of thousands of swatches or “spot” colors. Swatches are the varying degrees of color that are combined to make a solid. You choose a single color you want — based on a number — and the colors are mixed to create it. This process is remarkably similar to how paint is mixed at a hardware store.

The Pantone system has been in use for a long time — since the 1950’s — and is used for a variety of applications. The PMS color palette is best for projects that use a single color and sometimes one or two more. Pantone is for anything less than four colors. For more than five colors you choose the CMYK profile.

Pantone tends to be cheaper with most printing processes because it doesn’t require as many colors, and the finished solid is more accurate and sharp. Pantone Matching is often used for stationary printing, generating logos, coloring business cards and similar applications.

Again, How Do I Choose?

Now that you understand the different color profiles, you can make your selection. Try to consider what you will be doing with the file or content. Are you going to be printing on fabric? Are you going to print a solid color on a business card or stock paper? Are you simply going to create a digital logo for use on your website?

The application matters, because it will determine how vivid, sharp and colorful you want the image or design. That will, in turn, help you decide which color profile to choose.

In practice, it’s best to stick with RGB or CMYK for digital and display based content — anything you’ll be viewing on a computer, smartphone or backlit display.

For print, you’ll want to choose between CMYK and PMS, depending on whether or not you’re working with solids, or much more detailed imagery. Professional and high-resolution photos, for instance, are best suited for CMYK because of how many different colors and shades they have in them.

But ultimately, it’s all up to you in the end. Whatever you tell your designer to work with — or whatever format you save the file in — will determine the color profile used.

Lexie Lu

Guest Blog Author: Lexie Lu

Lexie Lu is a freelance UX designer and blogger. She keeps up with the latest web design trends and always has a cup in close proximity.

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