What Are Color Modes? Explaining Color Gamut, RGB, HEX, CMYK + PMS

This short guide provides a high-level overview of common color modes used in a branding and logo design project. These include RGB, HEX, CMYK, and PMS (Pantone). You will learn about the typical uses of each color mode, their pros and cons, as well as tips for determining when to use each one.


When you receive the files for your branding project, you may feel overwhelmed by the various color types provided. Incorrect usage of these colors can result in frustration and unexpected outcomes. This guide aims to increase your confidence in utilizing your logo assets and creating new materials for your brand, such as social media posts, website updates, or print materials.

However, it is important to note that this guide provides a simplified explanation of color modes, specifically tailored for beginners and focused on branding and maintaining a brand’s image. It is not an exhaustive description of color modes.

Color Gamut Overview

Without delving into excessive technical details, it is important to understand that the visible color spectrum (what the human eye can perceive) is further limited by the capabilities of specific devices, such as digital screens or printers.



Please Note: These are approximations for visualization purposes.


As shown in the graphic above, different color modes have varying ranges of color:

  • RGB/HEX represents digital colors and offers the widest range of color.
  • PMS (Pantone Matching System) is a spot-color used for printed materials and provides the second widest range of color.
  • CMYK is a process color used for printed materials and has the most limited range of color.


Digital vs Print Color Modes



Another important concept to understand is that there are certain color modes that only exist digitally, and others that only exist when printed:

  • RGB/HEX are digital color modes. They require a backlit screen to display the colors.
  • CMYK and PMS (Pantone) are print color modes. They exist in the physical world and are applied onto materials when printed.


Color Modes


RGB (Red, Green and Blue)

RGB stands for Red, Green, and Blue, and it is a color mode that is used exclusively in the digital world. This includes screens such as computers, cellphones, digital cameras, televisions, and more.

A single color is created by combining three separate RGB color codes, each ranging from 0 to 255. This allows for a total of 16,777,216 color variations. The wide color gamut of RGB is due to the illumination of the screen, which allows for brighter and more saturated colors.

Benefits of RGB:

  • RGB colors are mathematically and digitally created, resulting in consistency across different devices.
  • It provides a wider range of colors, including more saturated and bright colors like neons.
  • It is a standard color system for screen displays, making it compatible with all software and editing tools.


Negatives of RGB:

  • Many colors within the RGB color gamut cannot be accurately reproduced in print. This can lead to muddier and duller colors if your brand assets (logo, color palette, etc.) were designed using RGB colors or if you accidentally use RGB colors for printed materials.




  • Avoid printing with RGB colors, always use the CMYK equivalents
  • While all screens use RGB, the specific settings of someone’s monitor will affect how colors display!
    For Example:

    • If someone has “night mode” setup on their phone or monitor
    • Level of screen brightness
    • If someone is using a different form of RGB (like how Apple has their own “Apple RGB” screen setting)
    • Any other kinds of adjustments (color, sharpness, contrast, etc)

HEX (Hexadecimal)

HEX stands for Hexadecimal and is a shortened version of RGB, originally created for CSS coding using the hexadecimal system. While you can use either RGB or HEX for coding and digital design, HEX is typically preferred because it is easier to copy and paste a single HEX code instead of typing in each individual three-digit color code for RGB.


Image shows the HEX and RGB color editor from Google Docs.


Benefits of HEX:

  • Same benefits as RGB
  • Added ease of copying and pasting a single number code instead of three individual numbers for RGB
  • Widely accepted, making it easy to find where to input a HEX code on most software and editing programs


Negatives of HEX:

  • Same negatives as RGB
  • Not as intuitive to understand the color it represents since it is essentially a “formula”



  • Use HEX colors when you are creating a social media post, web page, or anything else that is only being displayed digitally!
  • Avoid printing with HEX colors, always use the CMYK equivalents

CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black)

CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black, and it is the color system commonly used by average at-home and more economical printers (such as Vistaprint, Staples, Office Max, etc.). This color mode is frequently employed by graphic designers and small businesses for printed materials.

A single color is created by combining the four separate CMYK color codes, each ranging from 0-100%, allowing for approximately 16,000 color variations in total.

CMYK is considered a “process” color because, unlike Pantones, the printing device must calculate the correct percentage of each CMYK color and print them as millions of tiny overlapping dots. Our human eye then perceives these dots as a single color.



Benefits of CMYK:

  • CMYK colors are faster and more affordable to print, making them the most economical choice for small businesses or those on tight budgets.
  • If your brand has been designed with CMYK colors first, the colors of your printed materials will closely match your expectations compared to if your brand is designed with RGB colors first.
  • There is usually a near-exact RGB match, ensuring consistency between printed and digital colors.
  • There are a wider range of colors to choose from compared to PMS colors.


Negatives of CMYK:

  • Due to the nature of the printing process, there is a higher chance of color variation between print jobs, making it almost impossible for the same CMYK color to look exactly the same each time.
  • Can’t achieve many bright and saturated colors
  • If your brand has been designed with CMYK first and you want to upgrade to Pantone printing, the CMYK color is unlikely to exist as a PMS color. Therefore, you may need to adjust your brand’s color palette to match the PMS system.



  • If you print items infrequently or have a lot of colors in your branding, using CMYK color printing is a more economical option compared to using Pantone colors.
  • It is advisable to avoid using online software, such as Canva or Adobe Express, to design print materials because these programs do not support CMYK colors.
  • For better color and print quality, consider using a higher quality CMYK printer like Moo.com

PMS (Pantone Matching System)

PMS stands for Pantone Matching System, a proprietary color numbering system used by professional printers. PMS colors are commonly used in graphic design and product design for print materials. As of 2023, there are 2,390 PMS colors available.

The Pantone company pre-mixes the colors to create solid spot colors. Each PMS spot color has a corresponding name and number, allowing printers to find and use the exact matching color. Spot colors are printed one layer at a time, unlike CMYK process color printing.



Benefits of PMS:

  • PMS results in more accurate and consistent color compared to CMYK printing, due to pre-mixing and standardization.
  • PMS allows for more saturated and brighter colors in print, including neons.
  • PMS printing tends to look more expensive and eye-catching due to the spot printing technique and higher quality inks.


Negatives of PMS:

  • Most PMS colors do not have close CMYK equivalents, so colors may print differently when using CMYK printing.
  • PMS requires expensive physical Pantone color swatch books, which are updated yearly, and a subscription through Adobe for the rights to use the Pantone colors in Adobe software.
  • Printing with spot colors is typically more expensive than CMYK printing, and costs increase with each additional color needed in the design.
  • PMS has a wider range of colors compared to CMYK, but there is a limited number of colors to choose from.



  • If you are a product-based company, especially one with prominently printed packaging (such as food packaging at a grocery store, a box for a board game, or the packaging for makeup), it is advisable to always use Pantone colors.
    • This is because these types of products are often displayed next to each other in a wholesale environment. If a wholesaler or reseller restocks and places the new product next to the remaining product, inconsistent colors may make both the reseller and potential shoppers believe that the entire product has changed. This can make them hesitant to purchase the product again. For new potential customers, inconsistent colors may subconsciously convey unprofessionalism or cheapness.
  • However, if your offering is primarily digital or if your business doesn’t rely heavily on printed elements, using Pantone colors and spot printing may not be necessary for your brand.

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