CMYK vs. RGB vs. PMS: What’s the difference and when to use them?

March 27, 2019

If you’re a new graphic designer or business owner learning the ropes so you can design your own marketing materials, you need to know the differences between the CMYK, RGB and Pantone (PMS) color systems — and when to use them. The right color system can make your designs pop, while the wrong color system can cause costly disasters. Make the right choice with the following guide to CMYK, RGB and Pantone color systems.

pantone vs cmyk vs rgb color systems

Differences between CMYK, RGB and PMS color systems

  • CMYK blends four colors (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black) applied as dots to create new colors. Also known as four-color process, CMYK is used for printing. It’s best for photographs and designs that incorporate multiple colors or gradients, though it can be challenging to match CMYK colors between printers.
  • The Pantone Matching System (PMS) uses solid colors, known as spot colors, that are identical no matter who prints them. It’s best for branding and applications in which perfect color matches are critical, but it's not good for color blending. Incorporating multiple PMS colors can be expensive.
  • RGB is a digital color system used on screens: televisions, computers, mobile phones and digital cameras. It is not used for printing. RGB arranges Red, Green and Blue pixels to create new colors on the screen.

cmyk vs pantone vs rgb

When to use CMYK, RGB and Pantone (PMS)

CMYK is used for many printing projects, including marketing collateral such as brochures, catalogs, flyers and booklets. It’s an economical option since multiple jobs can be bundled together, and it’s capable of producing a wide range of different colors, so CMYK is ideal for artwork that features photographs and gradients.

Matching CMYK between printers and even print jobs can prove difficult unless you choose a G7 Master Certified Printer, which can provide color consistency through precise calibration.


Pantone (PMS) is used for projects that require perfect color matching: logos and other branding, screen printing and product manufacturing, for example. Each Pantone color is solid and assigned a unique number to ensure exact coloring. Pantone colors are not good for photographs or gradients, but they’re excellent for color reproduction.

Each Pantone project requires unique press setup and printing multiple PMS colors in a single job can be expensive. That means it’s best used for projects that have one to three solid colors without photographs or blending. It can also be used to achieve colors outside the range of CMYK’s capabilities. It’s possible to match Pantone to CMYK colors, though results may vary.

pantone pms

RGB colors are used exclusively for screens. RGB is considered an “additive” color space since it starts with a black screen and uses light to produce colors. This contrasts with CMYK and PMS, which are considered “subtractive” because they start with blank white paper and use ink to absorb colors from the color spectrum and therefore reflect the colors our eyes perceive. One visual difference is that RGB colors can appear more vibrant.

Use the RGB color system when designing websites, video overlays, online advertisements and other digital artwork, but never for printed applications.


To recap:

  • Use CMYK for printing flyers, booklets, brochures, catalogs and other marketing materials
  • Use Pantone for logos and branding, screen printing, products and solid-color artwork for printed items such as stationery, memo pads and other promotional products
  • Use RGB for digital designs intended for screens

Knowing which color system to use can be the difference between lackluster printing and a brilliant design that resonates with customers. If you’re still not sure which color system to use, contact PsPrint’s friendly support team for assistance. 

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The PsPrint Blog is a resource for graphic designers, freelancers, small business owners and fans of print marketing. You'll find helpful techniques on printing everything there is to print, including business cards, postcards, brochures, stickers, invitations, greeting cards, door hangers, magnets and more. The PsPrint Blog shares creative ways to improve your design and layout skills, and useful tips for marketing your business in any medium. We also like to have a little fun, sharing design inspiration and spotlighting some our favorite customers' printed pieces in our "Hot Off the Press" series.