If you’ve ever felt like design and production department people are speaking a different language, well, we are. Contrary to popular opinion though, we don’t make things up and create rules just for the sake of being difficult…really, we’re just trying to get jobs done right the first time around to avoid costly “surprises” when the finished product comes around. If you tend to get that icky feeling in the pit of your stomach when calling in an art request or exploring fulfillment options, help is here – it doesn’t take the latest edition of Rosetta Stone to figure out what your design and production cohorts are talking about. Read on for the latest lesson:


Color is color, right? And all colors are created equal, correct? Au contraire – there are actually three distinct ways to create color, and yes, some ways are superior depending on the media in which you’re working:

RGB: What any screen (computer, television, phone, iPad,) produces color with. Tiny dots of red, green and blue (hence, RGB) called pixels come together in different concentrations to make colors. Don’t believe me? Find a friend with an old tube TV (not the flatscreen ones) and put your face right up against it. You’ll actually see the RGB dots. Note: I am not legally responsible for any damage this may cause to your brain.

CMYK: What printers (professional off-set, professional digital, even your at-home ink yet) produce color with. It is also referred to as four-color process (or 4C for short). Tiny dots of cyan, magenta, yellow and black (K refers to black in printing) come together in different concentrations to make colors. Take a look at your printer cartridge at home and you’ll surely see those four colors noted on it.

SPOT COLOR (a.k.a., PANTONE® COLOR): A spot color is a custom color mixed to exact specifications. Think of it like paint for your home – you go to the paint store, choose a swatch and a machine squirts exact amounts of colors into a base to produce a uniform color paint. The result is a seamless, rich color that is always the same no matter where you get it from. Spot colors are only used in professional print applications – an inkjet or digital printer cannot produce spot colors, and if you’ve ever tried to match a PMS for an on-screen application like a website, well, tough bunnies. It can’t be done – you can only approximate colors with an RGB breakdown. (For times like this it pays to invest in a Pantone book that offers Color Bridge, meaning that next to each spot color there is a CMYK and RGB breakdown that will get you closest to that spot color.)

A note about Pantone® colors: You’ll often hear spot colors referred to as Pantones – Pantone is the industry-standard trademark that offers a dizzying array of colors for various applications. However, a good professional printer can create a custom spot color to match anything at all, so really you’re not even limited to what can be found in a Pantone book. For example, the Tiffany blue featured on all Tiffany boxes and shopping bags is not a Pantone color – it is a secret formula only used for Tiffany materials.

So great, now you know how to produce color. But when to use what? Quite simply, RGB is for anything that will end up on a screen – web, video, etc. CMYK is for a finished piece that will can be printed anywhere. Spot colors are for professional offset printing in which color consistency is key, like for logos or corporate colors.

~ Trish Salge & Jen McClusky, Productionarians at The S3 Agency (

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Trisha Salge
Trisha Salge

Creative Supervisor @ The S3 Agency

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