What’s a Color Mode?!

I once told you that my job is the same as coloring all day. I’d say that basic description of my job still remains true because most days, I do color a lot! But, instead of using crayons and markers, I use color modes and Adobe. So since spring is almost here and the colors are going to keep getting brighter, lets have a little talk about one of my favorite subjects, COLOR!

Did you know that human beings are able to see approximately 10 million different colors? That’s a huge number! You see so many colors every single day that you probably can’t even recognize them all. I wish there was a way for me to process how many different colors I see in a day! Anyway, in the printing world, those millions of colors are categorized into color modes as a means for standardization. Color modes allow for the translation of color through numbers and percentages rather than a description. The 4 main color modes that I use in my designs are PMS, CMYK, RGB and Web RGB. There are other color modes that I still don’t know much about, which is understandable since there are millions of colors out there! So lets talk about what I do know, shall we?

  • We’ll start with PMS (Pantone Matching System) since our vendors in the promotional products and apparel industry prefer it. PMS deals with solid colors/inks that are blended to match the Pantone color guide. This mode is used most often in our industry because it allows for more exact color matching on a variety of colors and materials. Since we supply a wide array of products from many vendors, PMS is the common language in our industry so printers can use the Pantone color guide to specifically match desired color.
  • Next up is CMYK, which is most prevalent in printing on paper. CMYK is a four-color print process that uses Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black. CMYK color works best for paper printing because it uses reflections from white paper and percentages of those 4 colors to show various colors. When 100% of each of the colors is added, we see the color black. The CMY colors can be used alone since they provide a variety of colors but black is added for more density. For printing projects such as branding materials, flyers and banners we use CMYK so that the color is translated well on paper.
  • RGB is commonly used on-screen for images containing Red, Green, and Blue. RGB is the opposite of CMYK in that it occurs most often on black and uses white light to create color. So, when 100% of each value is added, you’ll see white. RGB is mainly used in computer-based applications and not print since computer screens are originally black with light added to make images. Our salespeople use RGB in their PowerPoint presentations since they are sent from computer to computer.
  • Web RGB or HEX colors have the same features as RGB but instead of percentages, use a unique code that can be entered in a website’s coding. The code is created mathematically by using the RGB values divided into hexadecimal digits. Those hexadecimal digits are translated into letters and numbers that make up the code. This color mode is used solely on screens and I use it most often in customizing web code for our permanent e-commerce stores.

Each of these color modes can be translated between each other. So if I’m using an art file for our website and need to go from CMYK to RGB color, my wonderful design software will translate it for me! The colors don’t appear exactly the same because of the differences in the modes that I explained above. Dealing with color will never be perfect since there are millions of colors out there but at least we have color! And now you know about the strategy behind the color modes I use in coloring all day!

Shelby Zach

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