Design Snack: The Science of Color

Design Snack: The Science of Color


By now we have all hopefully heard of the two different color systems: CMYK and RGB. But why are there two? If you had to choose one to use, which would you pick? I could quickly tell you the easy answer, CMYK is used for print and RGB is used for displays, but there is actually a science as to why each system is necessary.

CMYK – Subtractive

Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black(K) are used in print. In the CMYK model notice when all 3 colors are combined the resulting color is BLACK. Interestingly the overlapping of subtractive colors (CMY) results in additive colors (RGB).

This color combination is used in print because typically you start with a white palette and add color. In the printing world CMYK is also referred to as process color, as opposed to spot color which is a premixed color such as a pantone color.


RGB – Additive

Red, Green, Blue, are used on screen. When all 3 colors are combined the resulting color is white. When a display is off it is in a native black state, therefore to display and image it needs light or white. In the RGB model notice that the overlapping of additive colors (RGB) results in subtractive colors (CMY).


Pantone is a proprietary color system used in print, plastic, paint and fabric. The colors are not mixed by a printer, or CMYK process. Each color is a standard, premade by Pantone to guarantee each use and reproduction will be identical.


Gamut = Range of Color

CMYK and RGB are only capable of making up a portion of the color spectrum. RGB can display approximately 70% of the colors perceived by the human eye while the Pantone and CMYK are far less.

Hopefully this will make you more knowledgeable in the vast world of color. By choosing the correct color system, it will help insure the intended output is achieved. If you have any questions feel free to email me!

Photo Credit for Pantone: miracle

Photo Credit for Gamut: MissionStream


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