The Difference Between CMYK, PMS, RGB and HEX Color



When it comes to branding and color in general, you want to make sure you are staying consistent throughout all mediums.  From screens to prints, to apparel, the key to successful marketing is consistency. Understanding the color systems will help your brand maintain that consistency. 
You may see these color breakdowns in your company’s brand guide and think “what do those even mean?” Well, this quick summary will give you a better understanding of what these color systems are and where they are meant to be used.
CMYK is an acronym for cyan, magenta, yellow, and key (black). These are the color plates that are used in a 4 color printing process. Colors in CMYK are defined by the percentage of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black that is used in a specific color. For example, our Systemax Navy is presented as: C=98 M=68 Y=45 K=33.
CMYK is the color system that is used only for printing purposes. All printers use CMYK for printing projects that include designs and images like magazines, postcards, and brochures.
Full-colored images and colors are created from the overlapping layers of the CMYK colors. These colors are applied on the medium as tiny dots to make up the desired image or color. In fact, if you have any full-color printed material and a magnifying glass you can actually see the tiny CMYK dots that make up the image!
The examples below show the CMKY color layers and how they look when they are separated and then put together to create an image. And that other one shows how printed material looks when magnified.


CMYK is only used for printing. 

PMS (Pantone Matching System) 
The Pantone Matching System is a color standardization system that helps in color identification and matching. Inside this Pantone Matching System there are individual Pantone colors. Pantone Colors are patented, standardized color inks that are all assigned their own specific identification number.  For example, the PMS for the Systemax Navy is PMS 3035.
PMS is the color system that is used for brand consistency and printing. You will often use a PMS color (often called a spot color) when doing a 1-2 color printing job and for screen printing. 
Using PMS colors is the strictest way to ensure consistency for a brand. This is why you will see logos in Pantone colors instead of CMYK or other color systems. Using Pantone colors gives marketers and printers the ability to identify the brand’s colors without contact to one another. 
Keep in mind that the conversion from PMS to any of the other color systems may not be exact. This is just because all the colors are made in different ways. Since PMS is such a specific color formula, it might not convert the exact same to CMYK but it will be pretty close! 
Check out the example below of how PMS colors convert to CMYK.


PMS/Pantones are used for printing and are strongly recommended for branding. 

RGB stands for red, green, blue. These are the 3 hues of light that mix together to create different colored images on screens. Similar to CMYK, RGB uses a value between 0-255 to show the amount of red, green, and blue in a specific color. Again our Systemax Navy is presented as- R=0 G=66 B=89.
RGB is the color system used for digital purposes. It is used for appearances on computers, TVs, and your phone screen. 
Unlike CMYK, RGB colors appear more vibrant and have a larger range in the color spectrum. When you design something in RGB but decide to print you will have less vibrant results than what you see on the screen. Actually some colors designed in RGB can’t even be achieved with CMYK.
Below is an example of how the RGB color system works to create other colors using an additive process. 


RGB is for onscreen/ digital purposes only.

HEX (Hexadecimal Color)
A HEX color is basically RGB but used for web design and is translated using hexadecimal values. HEX color is expressed as a 6 digit combination of numbers and letters defined by its mix of red, green, and blue that only a web browser can read. To show an example of a HEX number, here is the Systemax Navy in HEX- #004259.


HEX is only used for website design. 

If you have any questions about the colors your brand is using or about the color systems in general, we are happy to help! (:

Author Info

Hi there! My name is Sidney Meyers and I am one of the Graphic Designers here at Systemax. I am responsible for creating artwork, anywhere from logos to social media graphics, to fulfill the needs and goals of a variety of different clients. Outside of work, you can most likely find me hanging out with friends, planning my next weekend adventure, or creating projects on my Cricut!