Color Specifications: What’s the difference between CMYK, RGB, and HEX?

Cynthia Bartz • November 3, 2016

As I’ve talked about in the last few posts, using consistent color in your branding is very important. And, in order to use consistent colors, you need to know a little bit about how to communicate information about your brand colors to designers, printers, etc. In this article I explain the difference between CMYK, RGB, and HEX (plus Pantone) color specifications, as well as where you need to use these different types of colors.

Why There are Different Types of Colors

There are lots of different types of color specifications, even more than CMYK, RGB, and HEX. And, hey, the reason for having different color specifications is not to confuse you, I promise! Different print or publishing processes have different ways of creating color. The method used depends on how you are publishing your advertisement/sales sheet/marketing collateral/client documents/thing.

Color Specifications

Throughout this post I will refer to Color Specifications. Color Specifications refer to the numbers or codes used to communicate a color to another professional. It is the standard way of saying not just blue, but your blue, this exact blue. Using these standards means that your colors will look correct and the same, whether you are printing a sales flyer, wrapping a car, or publishing a Facebook ad.

Using color specifications, instead of a verbal description of your color allows you to be exactly consistent every time. Because your idea of royal blue might look like purple or navy to someone else. Consistency demands codes and standards. So, using the color standards will allow you to be consistent.

Yes, You Need All of Them

You need to know the breakdown for all three color types: CMYK, RGB and HEX. If you only have the CMYK code, you leave yourself open to interpretation and inconsistencies.

Why? Because not all converters are perfect. Sure, if you have one color specification, you can run it through a converter and get a whole host of other color specifications. But you will not get the same numbers for every converter.

So, if you only have one number, your designer will end up resorting to a converter. There is no standard way to go about this conversion. Each designer has their preferred way of moving between color specifications. You leave yourself at risk for inconsistencies if you only have one of the color specification numbers. At a minimum you need the CMYK, RGB and HEX color specifications (codes).

Digital Colors: RGB & HEX

There are two color codes for digital applications: RGB and HEX Code.


The RGB color specification has three numbers, from 0 – 255, and typically looks like this:

RGB Format: 72 – 196 – 172

RGB stands for Red, Green, Blue. RGB is referred to as a subtractive color specification. It represents the amount of red, green, and blue light used to create the color. RGB is used for digital applications because all digital applications use light to create color.

What you need to know: RGB is used for screens.

HEX Code

HEX Code and RGB create color the same way, but with different standards. HEX Code colors are also created using light and are also used in digital applications. Hex code is primarily used on websites, but can also be used in design software like Photoshop, Canva, Illustrator, Gimp, etc.

The HEX Code color specification is a six-digit code that is easier for computers to read, and typically looks like this:

HEX Code Format: #48C4AC

Technically the HEX Code and RGB values are the same, the difference is that the HEX Code is squished together to make one number/code, and instead of using base 10, it uses a base 16 numbering system. If that confuses the heck out of you that’s ok. I still have a hard time wrapping my head around it.

What you need to know: HEX is used for screens, AND HEX and RGB are actually the same color standard, and if you have one you can figure out the other using a converter. (this is consistent)

Applications for RGB & HEX:

  • Web Ads
  • Twitter Ads
  • Facebook Ads
  • Social Media Profiles
  • Social Media Posts
  • Email Signatures and Text
  • Powerpoint and Word
  • Websites
  • Apps
  • Anything that will appear on a screen.

Print Color

There are two main standards for print colors CMYK and Pantone.


The CMYK color specification is made up of four colors: Cyan (bright sky blue), Magenta (bright pink), Yellow, and Black, from 0 to 100. It is also commonly referred to as four-process printing. Materials printed using CMYK are printed using layers of dots to create the color. If you were to look at a magazine or one of your business cards really really close you would see all these dots that form the colors you see. This is the most common type of printing today because it is much cheaper to print this way.

CYMK typically looks like this:

CMYK Format: 64 – 0 – 42 – 0

I’m not going to get into all the other options for printing, because CMYK is probably the only type of printing you will encounter. Just know that if you start doing a lot of printing, it might be good to ask your printer what other options are out there.

What you need to know: CMYK is for printing physical documents, posters, banners, etc.

Applications for CMYK:

  • Flyers
  • Postcards
  • Business Cards
  • Posters
  • Banners
  • Contracts
  • Anything coming out of your printer or going to any printer of any kind.


I wanted to touch briefly on Pantone colors, since it is a term that gets thrown around a lot. Pantone is also referred to as a process color. The easiest way to understand Pantone is to imagine a big vat of color that is pre-mixed and then applied to whatever you are having printed. Like custom color paint cans at your favorite home improvement store. Pantone ends up being really expensive when you have lots of colors because the printer will need a bucket of color for every color on your flyer/business card/whathaveyou.

Pantone has lots of different color standards and thousands of color codes and labels. Most of the time they looks something like this:

Pantone Format:  PMS 3258 C  -or-  3258C

Stuff printed in Pantone looks damn sexy and really high-end because you get a solid swath of color. The only place you might use Pantone is on promotional materials where you are using one color, such as: t-shirts, pens, mouse-pads, key chains, etc. Even then, most promotional materials will be limited in colors, and will not allow you to get as specific as an individual Pantone color.

If you do not know the Pantone color specifications for your brand colors it is a-ok. You really don’t need them. And if you ever get to a point where you do, whoever your working with can help you figure it out based on your CMYK colors.

What you need to know: Pantone is expensive, but beautiful, and 99% of the time you won’t need it.


Now that you better understand what the different types of color are and how they are used, it’s time to document yours.

Get my Brand Color Worksheet to help you document your branding colors the way the pros do.

Other Articles in this series

Why Branding Colors are Damned Important, and How To Use Them

How To Find Your Brand Colors – The Easy Way

Download Your Branding Color Worksheet

2df78a45-84d2-41b0-8e98-08487fc64037Document your brand colors in this easy to use worksheet that you can fill out digitally, print, save and share with all the awesome people who help you get your business out in the world. In this worksheet you will be able to:

  • Document 6 branding colors
  • Make a list of who should get a copy of your brand colors
  • Find recommendations for keeping track of colors.
  • Bonus: Step Up Your Color Game
    Where I ask you 4 questions to help you make better design choices.



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