CMYK, PMS, RGB… Oh, brother. Today I’m going over all the tricky color terms a designer uses day in & day out. These definitions are crucial for a practicing designer to know & helpful for clients working with a designer to learn. And since so many of us are visual people, why not add images to help us all easily remember the terms? Now, keep in mind, I’m not going into the nitty gritty details of these topics. Just a simple guide to reference when you or your client needs a color lesson. And don’t miss Emma & I’s top online color resources at the bottom of this post! Thanks for your support & enjoy the tips. –Chelsea


CMYK / An acronym for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black (AKA process color and four color). When printing a project with many colors, like a photographic based project, CMYK is a common color model printers use. These four colors combined in print, make any color combination under the sun. Fun fact! Mixing just CMY is theoretically supposed to create black but instead, it only creates a dark muddy color. So, they added black to the three color combo.

Spot Color / A single ink color used in print. If you’re printing a job with say 1 to 3 colors, you would choose the Pantone (see below) spot colors and specify them to your printer. Emma and I both used spot colors to print our brand materials, seen here.

PMS / An acronym for Pantone Matching System (AKA Pantone). Pantone is a company that created the most popular spot color system in the world. You can buy Pantone books right here. In addition to basic color books, they also have metallic, fluorescent and pastel color books, which are colors that can only be created using a spot color.

If you’re not ready to invest in Pantone color books (they’re pricey), you can pick up paint swatches from Home Depot and have your printer match a color based off those samples. When working on a print based project, it’s good for you and client to both have a record of the spot PMS colors chosen for each color used for the project. Fun Fact! In 2000, Pantone started picking a Color of the Year. Check out those colors here.


RGB / An acronym for Red, Green and Blue. Together, these three colors make up every color you see on a display device, like a computer, tv or phone. Each of the colors has a number between 0 and 255. Example: R=255 / G=0 / B=0 is pure red. R=0 / G=0 / B=0 is black. R=255 / G=255 / B=255 is black.

HEX Number / (Stands for Hexidecimal Color) This six digit number represents a color used for anything on the web. Example: #FF0000 is pure red. #000000 is black. #FFFFFF is white. You’ll often see an option to type in your own HEX number while customizing a blog or twitter.

And just as you want to record Pworking on a web based project, it’s good for you and client to both have a record of the RGB mixes and HEX numbers for each color used on the site. Also, if you have an RGB mix and want to find out the HEX Number of that color, click here to use a ‘color calculator’ we found.


Some of our Favorites /
Cubicle Refugee
Colour Lovers
Palettes by Creature Comforts
Color Collective
Pugly Pixel


Do you have a favorite color resource or tip?
Be sure to tell us about it in the comments section below. Emma and I would love to hear about it!
And be sure to check back in two weeks for our next Design Guide topic… PAPER!!