Pantone, RGB, and CMYK… Help!

Pantone, the American colour company, announced just in December what their chosen colour for 2020 is. Drum roll please… Classic Blue, AKA Pantone 19-4052.

It’s a lovely colour, actually. Pantone describe it as “a reassuring presence instilling calm, confidence and connection”, which we rather like as a sentiment at the moment. Let’s face it, things are all over the place in the news.

But we know that to many people, blue is blue. Yes, one gets different shades of it, but then what more is there to say? And we’d say that’s fair enough. However, even if you do just think blue is blue, “What is a Pantone?” may still be a question hovering on your lips. So we thought it worth a wee blog on this whole Pantone, RGB, and CMYK malarkey. Because if you ever need to speak to a printer, these terms may well come up in the conversation at some point.

So what is the difference between Pantone, RGB, and CMYK?

First things first, the reason we’ve posed that question in this article is because that’s the question people ask. However… interestingly… it’s not really the right question, for it’s not so much about ‘difference’ and more about where they’re used. Let’s have a quick look at this.


Taking CMYK to start with, the letters stand for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and blacK. The K stands for Key as the three other colours are keyed or aligned to the black. These are the four colour inks used in colour printing. If you think about your printer at home, you’ll see what we mean. The way CMYK inks work is that they effectively ‘soak up’ the light from the white paper they’re on so their colour shows. And before we say any more on that confusing point… We’ll move on to RGB.


Red, Green, Blue. If you look at a digitally displayed photo, these are the colours you’re seeing. The display (screen) you’re using is actually black, so when light is shined from behind the screen the RGB colour mix creates what you see.

SO! In effect, RGB is used for digital ‘stuff’ and CMYK is used for printing. But with that said, so what? And what has all this got to do with Pantones?

Well, you’ll no doubt have seen how different a colour can look from one screen to another. RGB is actually very inconsistent to the human eye in how it displays, and this is because it’s dependent on many settings relating specifically to the screen on which it’s displaying. And if you display a picture created in RGB and then print it, it will look really weird! Which takes us to our next point…


What’s this Pantone stuff then? Glad you asked. Pantone colours are used, in many ways, as a colour matching system. Inks are created in specific shades and then printed out in a colour-match swatch book. Now, if you take on board that graphic designers are working on screens, which are RGB, and the printing process requires CMYK, you’ll begin to appreciate that it’s useful for them to be able to use a Pantone number to convert their chosen shade into CMYK or vice versa. The Pantone inks can also be used individually in printing, but that’s not really what this blog is about.

Does this all really matter?

We’d say yes. All businesses, large and small, need to be rigidly consistent in their marketing, and part of being consistent involves regular use of the same colour palettes. You want your logo to look the same on screen as it does on your business card and in your brochure. And using Pantones is often how you’re graphic designer will make sure this is the case.

A final word

So, regardless of whether you like Classic Blue Pantone No. 19-4052, or actually prefer its 2019 predecessor, Living Coral (we’ll leave you to look that one up!), we’re hoping that you feel a little more up to speed with some of the jargon that many printers bandy around like confetti. And if you’d like to understand a bit more before you move forward with your next printing project, then please do give us a ring. We promise to keep jargon to a minimum… and we’ll help you sort out your pantones from your CMYKs in the process.