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Understanding Color Space

As a trade marketing consultant, I’ve dealt with color my entire life. At my creative agency, 54blue, my team works with color in every project. What most people don’t know is that color isn’t as simple as it seems, and it’s important for both new and old brands to think about color limitations between print and digital before doing anything.

Let me tell you a quick real-world story…

In 2022, an up-and-coming brand came to us with their main brand color, a vibrant blue. They were frustrated because they were getting exceedingly mixed results on various print mediums in market. The blue would be too dark, faded or flat compared to all the digital examples, and even the printed blues sitting side-by-side in market didn’t match. They thought it was the different materials and bad print partners.

Digging into the issue, we asked for the brand’s color guidelines and found the root of the issue immediately. Unfortunately, at the brand’s conception the original design team (now gone) did not understand the basics of color space, leading to massive inconsistencies across their brand materials and a huge issue for the current team to fix.

What is a color space?

So what exactly is a color space?

To make it overly simple, I am going to speak about the three main color spaces that you need to know to design branded creative on your computer and have it output correctly in the real world, no matter the medium. These are Pantone, CMYK and RGB. For someone who is really into the specifics of color space management, this will seem like an incomplete guide, as I am just going to explain the basics that brand’s need to be able to make their way through the market.

From a brand’s perspective, the easiest way to think of color spaces is the end result. You design using the Pantone system to ensure fixed branded graphical elements like logos and solid brand colors can be reproduced correctly on any printer, on any medium (like paper, vinyl, fabrics, metals and plastics etc). You design in the CMYK color space for printed art and photography, and RGB for any digital display like a phone, computer or TV.

Pantone rules the landscape when it comes to printing solid colors like our client’s would love to be able to do with their problematic blue. It allows colors to be perfectly reproduced around the globe on any type of printer and on any type of material. How is this possible? The Pantone Guidebooks (of which there are many). These are physical books with visual swatches to use for color matching, not just for printing but for any branded materials – it really is that simple and low-tech! This book is paired with matching digital design swatches to use in programs like Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop and the like. This allows every designer to be on the same page visually with any printshop or manufacturer. The printshop or manufacturer can see the exact color reference and suggested ink mix, they can then visually ensure their colors are calibrated to match it. This means a brand like Coca Cola can produce their infamous red color perfectly around the globe at any available printer on any medium (bottles, cans, coolers, hats, billboards, wrapped delivery trucks, and way more).  So cool!!!

So what about Pantone’s limitations? Pantone is limited by the amount of colors available; it has the fewest colors offered out of the three color spaces (about 2200 colors). It seems like a lot but in the end, it can cause issues for designers that want unlimited choices, and in my client’s case, the perfect vibrant blue.

Side note. For those who don’t know, Pantone and Adobe (the two most prevalent names in design) are causing a stir in the design world after their long-running economic dispute finally culminated in Adobe limiting Pantone color options in their platform. This does not devalue the need in the marketplace for something like Pantone. However, at the present time, to get this vitally important set of color palettes, it appears designers will have to pay Pantone a separate monthly subscription fee to gain access to the full Pantone library in all Adobe products.


Cyan, Magenta, Yellow & Key (Black) are the primary colors in a basic digital printer. In this color space, white is the natural (uncolored) state, like a blank sheet of paper. Almost all print starts with white for the colors to reflect correctly. The CMYK color spectrum can produce over 16,000 colors and can reproduce color gradients that look near perfect to the human eye.

It’s possible to print Pantone and CMYK at the same time. For example, a Coca Cola magazine ad can have an amazing photo and their vibrant red logo in one document. How does this work? The Pantone color space fits into the CMYK color space, meaning the exact Pantone color (usually referred to as a ‘spot color’) can be translated perfectly into a CMYK value. This allows photography to be printed correctly while still maintaining logo and brand colors.


Red, Green & Blue are the primary colors in the digital world. In the RGB color space, black is the natural (uncolored) state, like your television or computer screen when they’re off.  The RGB color space works by using primary colors as the source of luminosity. The more colors a device emits, the closer the display gets to white. Graphic designers use RGB for digital designs on devices that emit light (i.e. computer screens, TVs, movie projection). The RGB color spectrum is vast and has over 16.7 million possible colors! RGB can reproduce almost any color and produces the best visual gradients between colors. Because of this, RGB can easily display all colors in the CMYK and Pantone color spaces.

If you have not figured it out yet, at the brand’s conception, the original design team picked a vibrant blue in RGB to start with. When they needed to print, unfortunately the chances of a random RGB blue translating into CMYK is extremely small and in this case it did not. They then printed a bunch of inconsistent CMYK products in a softer blue and put them in market. To make the situation worse, at some later date they made the same mistake again and tried to pick a Pantone based on the CMYK.

This is a HUGE issue for this growing brand. Most consumers know them for that specific RGB blue they see online, but they do not see that when interacting with the brand already in the market. And whoops, they have so many different reproductions of the CMYK blue at play, that it looks messy and amateur. Did I mention that they have a fleet of huge vehicles wrapped in different CMYK blues? None of them match. Yikes! At this point we are talking literally millions of dollars to fix the issue.

Here’s a simple chart to compare the basic differences between these three main color spaces.
Comparing color spaces chart

Moral of the story…

When launching a brand, new product or new set of graphical elements within your brand, please start with Pantone first and then match RGB for digital use. It seems limiting (and it is) but for a very good reason if it ever goes to print… do you want a million-dollar issue?

The Author

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