Color Modes Decoded

CMYK, PMS, ROY G. BIV—alphabet soup is back on the menu!

Color is complicated, and designers could talk all day about it. (In fact, we have.) But, let’s keep this version to the essential color fast facts. Color is a major component of your brand’s visual identity, so it’s helpful to get your colors right from the start. By understanding the different color modes, you’ll ensure that your colors always look the way you want your clients to see them in print and online.


Pantone Matching System colors, a.k.a. Spot colors are individual swatches within a system of thousands of numbered colors used for very accurate color matching and highest detail reproduction. In fact, Circa builds logos and corporate color systems starting with PMS colors for this reason.

Fun Fact: Since PMS colors are individually mixed, an image with two spot colors requires fewer runs through a printer than its equivalent 4-color (CMYK) alternative, which can make it more cost effective.



Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Key (a.k.a. Black) represents the process color space. This is the most common mode for at-home and professional printers. There aren’t as many visible colors in the process spectrum, so it’s important to create and save files in CMYK color mode to get an accurate representation of how things will print.

Fun Fact: Most modern printers can let it slide if documents come to them in the wrong mode, but be prepared for this to cause noticeable shifts in output, and consult your printer ahead of time if color accuracy is important to you.



Red, Green, Blue represent the digital color space. Monitors can reproduce a really wide range of colors, so use the RGB color mode whenever you design and save files for digital use.

Un-fun Fact: Monitors can’t be trusted, like not even a little. When picking colors (even for primarily digital use), it’s best to consult a swatch book so there aren’t any unwanted surprises later on. (We recommend Pantone® Color Bridge Uncoated as a go-to set.) 

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