Colour Systems and How to Use Them

28.04.2016

There are quite some terms to define colour. You may not need all of them, but in today’s world it’s vital to know the colour basics and its differences.

Colours can provoke lots of different emotions. Colours have always been interlinked with branding. Some firms have such a distinctive colour usage that you recognise the brand only by colour. Do you think you know your way around your colour formats in the print and digital worlds and how they represent your brand? Juggling with many different colour terms like RGB, RAL, HEX, CMYK it can be a bit of a daunting experience sometimes. Also digital oriented people think of print and colour as a scary combination, while print enthusiasts can’t trust digital colour definitions. This article will supercharge your colour knowledge and help you to work more efficiently with designers, agencies or printing companies.

A brief overview of colour terms

There are quite some terms to define colour. You may not need all of them, but in today’s world it’s vital to know the basics and differences of colour specs, especially with brands using many different touch points and marketing techniques to reach the intended user/customers and want to keep a consistent brand experience across each medium. Also it might be helpful sometimes to understand the underlying magic of colours when talking about your next marketing campaign with your agency. So let’s dig directly into some of the different colour formats you might come across:

  • RGB - stands for Red Green Blue and allows to define a color by combining these three lights in degrees from 0 to 255. With this model you can define up to: 16’777’216 colours. It’s mostly used on device screens such as monitors.
  • RGBA - the same as RGB but adds transparency (0 to 100%) to a color and it’s used primarily in the web industry.
  • HEX - Hexadecimal is another notation for RGB. These are mainly used by web developers for colour in digital products
  • CMYK - Cyan Magenta Yellow and Key (black) used in the print world and defines in ranges from 0% to 100% how much of each tone is printed in order to get the desired colour. CMYK can only be approximately converted into RGB (depending on the screen settings a blue colour might look different on every screen), but a printed blue is exactly defined.
  • PMS - stands for Pantone Matching System, which is a standard for the print industry, just like CMYK. Pantone’s 1114 spot colours are commonly used among designers, since they offer a richer and more vibrant range of tones in comparison to CMYK. They cannot be converted directly to RGB nor can they be simulated by CMYK, as they’re based on 14 specific pigments mixed in specified amounts.
  • RAL - is not a colour system but more a colour collection, commonly used in Europe and named after the company who defined them. RAL is usually referenced as the RAL classic collection which consists of 213 colours used for powder coating and varnishing on things like van artwork. Their small amount of colours is due to their strict acceptance criteria such as, timelessness, the underlying of public interests, environmental compatibility and distinctiveness from existing colours in the catalogue.

What colour system do you need?

With digital printing becoming better and better all of the time for me for small to medium sized print runs in CMYK has been the best colour choice, especially if you have got a client that requires a quick turn around on a tight budget.

Although there is still a great deal of benefits that come with using traditional Lithographic techniques like cost on large scale runs. For me and my type of clients digital and CMYK is what I'm working with the most. Lithographic is where the inks are transferred onto four plates to create the image on the paper. As each plate transfers the colours mix to give the desired outcome. Digital transfers the ink as toner and unlike Litho it applies the CMYK colours at the same time.

When it comes to digital although it’s impossible to predict what monitor colour settings a user might have on their laptop screen and don’t forget every users eyes might see colours slightly differently, there are ways to ensure that the output is consistent. Even from screen to print you can get pretty good results with consistency. If you want to really brush up give this Digital Arts Blog article a quick read. The article gives some great advice about calibrating the colour on your devices. And helps with making sure that you can get your colour workflow working as consistent as possible.

Digital is a lot more unpredictable because you have less control over the output of the colour of millions of users devices across the globe. Whereas print as long as you follow your guidelines then your final product should be in sync with your brand.

Where to document it?

So although it is hard to achieve a colour heaven across everything if you have solid brand guidelines you can’t go wrong. Here are a few examples of guidelines that clearly show how their brand colour should be used.

EasyJet clearly shows how their brands colour orange should be used across the different mediums.

Dropbox has a simpler guide and is more digital based but works well. Although they could explain where the colour units should be used a little better to help non-experts.

If I had to choose my preference I love working with digital and it’s what I practice most but I still love having something physical to hold. You can't beat receiving something fresh off the press something you can interact with I think this provokes different emotions compared to a screen.

What about quality control?

There are some nice tools to help with making sure your designer/brand manager is following its guidelines. Using tools like Pantones Capsure device can help with checking the colour of packaging or POS (Point of Sale) Displays. This is extremely useful if you are using a few different suppliers and wishing for a perfect result across all of them. Another advantage is that if you can articulate what you want from your designer/agency in a language they understand then the process will run smoother, quicker and ultimately be more cost effective. It also helps reassure your customers/business that you really care about quality control for their/your brand. But remember this tool is for Pantone colours that fall under print.

Conclusion

A starting point is having a guideline that is easy to follow about how your logo/brand should be used and what colour units are right for each medium. Is your brand ready for whatever new technology has to throw your way?

With new emerging markets like wearables are throwing another dimension in terms of digital design into the mix and digital printing catching up with traditional techniques it’s more important than ever to make sure your brand and knowledge are supercharged.

Is Digital Vs Print relevant anymore or should we be seeing these work hand in hand? Perhaps one day we might see some new technology that can sync your brands colours across every possible device and medium with the click of a finger. Until that day we still need to be giving colour the upmost respect and attention when it comes to building a meaningful brand. With the speed that technology is going things could change sooner than we think.

Luke Maltby
Luke Maltby Freelance Digital/Graphic Designer
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