Graphic Design
4 min read

Colour Systems Guide: PMS, CMYK & RGB/HEX Explained

Written by Ollie Burt 

Unless you’ve got a foot in the world of print and digital graphic design you’d be forgiven for assuming choosing colours for your brand is a straightforward task. Alas, if only it was that simple! First, you have to make sure you’re choosing from the correct colour system.

The truth is it’s actually more akin to choosing what colour to paint a room in your house. That’s because before you start looking at paint colours you need to decide what shop you’re going to, or rather what brand of paint you’re going to buy – this then limits your options to the specific types and shades available within that brand.

It’s the same when choosing colours for your brand or logo, before you get bogged down in colour theory and start looking at specific palettes you need to make sure you’re looking at the right colour system. In the world of print and digital graphic design, we rely on three colour systems: PMS (Pantone® Matching System), CMYK, and RGB/HEX.

Choosing the Right Colour System

If you don’t want to read ahead to understand each one, let me summarise and explain why these distinctions are important:

Why is choosing the right colour system important?

RGB/HEX is for digital design and includes pretty much every increment of colour variation the human eye can perceive. In contrast, CMYK and Pantone® are for print and while extensive, are naturally limited by the inks they have available. For this reason, when your design needs to be used in both print and digital designs, it’s always best to start with a Pantone® colour and convert it to RGB/HEX rather than the other way around.

To illustrate the importance of choosing colour the right way, I have a real world example. A recent client of mine came to me to build them an e-commerce website. The first version of their website had been self-built using Wix, in doing so they created their own logo and had their brand colours set in stone. As part of the new website they required some new logo variations in the same specific colours. They later went on to have some packaging created and wanted to use the new logo variations. And here’s where they ran into some problems…

Because they had essentially built their brand themselves using Wix, they did so without any input from a professional designer and simply chose from the HEX colours offered up – which is fine for a website, but when they came to use those same colours in print, there wasn’t an exact match (as there rarely is). So they had a choice of either having packaging that didn’t quite match the main brand, or changing their core branding to bring it back in line – I’ll let you decide for yourself what the right move would have been.

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That’s why, when creating a brand we start with PMS (Pantone® Matching System) colours. Had they used a professional designer for their logo (rather than a free tool) it would have most likely been done using a Pantone® colour that could then be converted to RGB/HEX – to the client, it would have made no difference in terms of the shade of the colour, but it would have avoided this headache down the road.

PMS (Pantone® Matching System)


Pantone® is widely regarded as the global standard for colour in the printing world. Designers and printers use the Pantone® Forumla Guide (which provides a full list of PMS colours) to assure colour accuracy. PMS colours are typically used in offset printing for single or two-colour print jobs, or in high-end print jobs alongside CMYK.

The Pantone® Matching System (PMS) comprises over 1,800 solid colours. The majority are assigned a three or four-digit ID number followed by U, C or M – these letters represent paper stocks (uncoated, coated or matte). Using this process, designers can be assured that the colour they choose is the colour that will come out when printing.

CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow & Black)


CMYK is also referred to as four-colour printing and is used for full-colour jobs. Using a combination of four transparent ink colours (cyan, magenta, yellow & black) colours are overlaid to create the appearance of full-colour. If you look closely at a CMYK print you would see a series of overlapping dots – compared to PMS, where you would still see a solid colour.

Because of this process, CMYK has a tendency to produce variations in how prints come out, dependent on the printer – which is why brands usually use PMS when it comes to getting their brand just right.

RGB/HEX (Red, Green, Blue / Hexadecimal)


RGB uses red, green and blue to render colours on screens – so is considered a digital colour. When designing for the web (or TV) the RGB colour system is used. HEX (hexadecimal) is essentially a shorthand for RGB colours and is used by web designers to communicate colours more easily. A HEX code is a six-digit combination of letters and numbers with the first two representing red, the middle two green and the last two blue. In most design programmes the HEX code is generated for you.

Colour Matching Across Systems

The best way to ensure the most consistency in the use of colour across all your mediums, whether digital or print is with a comprehensive brand guide. Make sure you include the PMS, CMYK and RGB/HEX for each of your brand colours within your brand guide.

As I said above, in most cases it’s best to start with PMS and convert it to CMYK, RGB and HEX. The Pantone® website provides you with the CMYK, RGB and HEX values that most closely match your chosen colour.

Be aware, that when choosing a Pantone® or RGB colour that it may often appear muted when printed in CMYK – which is why you should use Pantone® where possible when it comes to your all-important brand colours. The Pantone® Colour Bridge guides allow you to see a side-by-side visual or your chosen Pantone® colours against the closest CMYK match on various paper stock – it’s an expensive resource, but if you’re a big brand and your colours are important it might be worth the expense.

Once you’re settled on your brand colours, be sure to list all the specific colour codes in your brand guide so that everyone working within your organisation has that one, singular resource to draw on – this will keep your branding and colours as consistent as possible.

If you’re looking for some help with your branding and graphic design requirements, get in touch – all our logo projects include research and consultation with our branding and marketing as standard.

Originally published 30th April 2021
Last edited 30th April 2021

Written by Ollie Burt

Ollie Burt is a full-stack marketer and Director at Nova. A specialist in helping small businesses and startups succeed online, he enjoys running (and beer). You can find him on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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