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Better Colors With This Primer


So you’ve spent an hour at the home improvement store looking at hundreds of paint swatches. You pick the perfect color, buy a gallon of paint, and rush home for a few hours of DIY. Then just as you step back to appreciate your hard work, you realize that perfect golden hue you selected, once on your walls under natural sunlight, looks like a less-appealing dingy mustard.

You picked the right swatch, and the guy in the paint department mixed it correctly, but the conditions under which you are viewing the color have changed.

Something similar happens in the world of print and web work.

I can’t tell you the number of times someone has tried over the phone to describe the shade of red they are seeing on their monitor or communicate that the blue in their logo looks purple. Then, there is my favorite: “The brochure looked brighter on my computer.” Again, the conditions under which you’re viewing the color have changed.

What’s in a letter (or two, or three, or four)? Here is a brief primer about color and a few hints to help you have realistic expectations when working with a designer on a project where color is important.

  1. RGB and HEX
    Monitors produce colors in RGB. The colors red, green, and blue combine to represent the many colors we see. Photographs used only for online application are saved in RGB mode. Solid color selections for websites are made in RGB or by using a HEX triplet, a combination of six letters and numbers that represents RGB components of colors. The same color can also look different on different monitors. Even on two monitors hooked to the same computer.
  2. CMYK
    In print, color is created from a combination of the inks cyan, magenta, yellow and black (black is the “k” in CMYK). The appearance of color can also shift based on the type paper it is printed on or external conditions in the print shop.
  3. swatches

  4. PMS
    PMS stands for Pantone® Matching System and is a standardized system for color selection and reproduction. Designers use a swatch book and software color libraries to select colors in the system. The colors can be solid pigments used for spot-color printing or CMYK blends. Over the years, the system has grown to include metallic, pastel, and flesh-tone color books. One of the most important tools offered in the system are books that show what a spot color will look like when printed in CMYK. And the books now include RGB and HEX values.

Check out this color.


The first swatch is the solid ink and the second is the CMYK build of the same color. There’s an obvious difference. And, yes, you guessed it. The color likely looks different on my monitor than yours.

If you’re unsure about how a color looks in an online or printed proof and if that color is critical, talk to your designer. He might suggest you look at a color book together to see if any tweaks in color selection are needed. Be aware some colors captured on a monitor cannot be reproduced in print. But with this knowledge you can have better luck at knowing what to expect.

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