One of the confusing things in design and printing is how many different names a color can have!!! We have multiple “rainbows”, including:

  • RGB
  • CMYK
  • Pantone
  • Hex

And there are some specific colors sets inside some of these (like Pantone coated or uncoated) but these are the basic color types we work with.

Why so many?

Different color sets are used for different functions. For example, RGB is used for internet and email, but not printing. CMYK is used for printing — but so is Pantone.

Let me explain a little bit about these different color sets and how they fit into the design and print industry.

In the beginning, there was spot color.

In printing initially, there was what we call spot color. This is the great-grand-daddy of Pantone and CMYK. Computers and televisions weren’t around at the time, so nobody had any idea that RGB or Hex were on their way. Cars with engines were still a big deal at the time. TV would have been sorcery.

Every printer made a different recipe for his or her ink. They only had the one color, no shades or variations of it. Eventually, the industry standardized and had several colors that everyone used the same recipe for: blue, reflex blue, red, yellow, green and sometimes orange and purple. This was during the era when business cards had raised ink (a bumpy feel when you ran your hand over it).

Then there was MTV and RGB

Then came television, first in black and white, later in color. When televisions became color-vision, the RGB color rainbow came to life. RGB means Red, Green and Blue – the three colors that make up all of the “light” behind the television screen and project the colors you see.

RGB becomes Hex

TV evolved into computer monitors, which also evolved into the high-definition monitors, phones and tablets we have today. These still use the RGB color rainbow, but they called it Hex. This name was given because the way you sampled color for computer use was by using the 2 letter/digit code for R, G and B. So if a color had an R of 12, a G of 6b and a B of de, the Hex for it was 126bde.

Screen resolution has changed to create better sharper images (see this post to learn more about resolution), but the way colors are created remains the same.

Pantone is born

People got tired of only having a few options in printing with spot color. The Pantone color rainbow was borne. This extended the range of ink from just a few spot colors to thousands – each shade of each color had a name and an ink recipe. They could all be “created” from 4 main colors of ink – cyan, magenta, black and yellow. (More on this below in the CYMK section). Printers could buy speciality inks to match any pantone color you wanted to use. You were still limited to “spot” color choices and not full color options, your color list just expanded. Pantone inks were a speciality, and had a price tag to match them.

CMYK printing revolutionizes the industry

As mentioned in Pantone, there are 4 “main” inks in printing – CMYK. That’s Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black. Every color in the world breaks down into some combination of these four.

With the advent of computer technology, it was only a matter of time before we moved away from the massive color presses that ran “plates” of each ink to create “full-color” printing. (If you’ve ever looked at a newspaper and been able to see color halos around an image, it means those four plates didn’t line up correctly on that sheet.)

Printers became digital – eliminating the need for hand typesetting, color plates and most of the entire “pre-press” segment of the industry. They also became smaller, faster and more affordable. Today, you can get a commercial printing machine for a few thousand dollars; in the 70s and 80s, the same work would have been done on a machine that was 10 times larger, 10 times more expensive and required 10 times the amount of manpower and product to operate.

This brought full color printing to a price point that was affordable to the masses. Now, everything we see is printed in full color on digital presses.

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