Understanding logos, digital & analog colors

If you’re a marketing or logo design do-it-yourselfer, or working with a designer on a logo for the first time, you’re going to hear a lot of technical terms and seemingly complex concepts about your logo colors. Here’s a simple (yet thorough) guide, in layperson’s terms, to what it all means..

Need to know basis..

Designers need to know everything there is to about different color spaces, printing requirements and limitations of this and that palette. You – as a client or someone new to designing a logo – don’t. Your expertise is what you do. A designer’s is what they do. And while you may hear a lot of seemingly complicated color terms and lingo when working on a new logo project, truth is there’s a lot of this stuff you simply don’t need to understand. Same goes for managing your digital brand assets day-to-day and getting stuff printed. We’ve been guilty of over-complicating things ourselves, and any color guides we’ve written tended to be fairly in-depth and technical in nature. Great for designers trying to learn the craft. For a business owner who only needs to know enough to get by? Probably too much.So let’s simplify things a bit..

The basics.

This is basically what we’ll cover..

What this isn’t.

This isn’t a guide to choosing great colors for your logo, so if that’s what you’re looking for, you can stop reading now. That’s far too subjective an issue to cover in this post and probably DOES need input from someone who knows what they’re doing (though if you want to see what colors the big boys do and don’t use, you can always check out our recent post on the most valuable logos.) This is an overview of the technical aspects of logo colors, which type you use for what application, as well as a basic peek at how things work when it comes to color and your own brand. There are exceptions to almost everything we’re going to tell you, but those need confusing explanations, and lead to the technical manuals we referred to earlier. We’re just going to cover the most applicable stuff for the average DIY user. Everything we’re about to cover also presupposes that either a) your designer knows what they’re doing, or b) if you’ve already taken delivery of your brand assets, they’ve been formatted correctly.

Color spaces, modes or profiles.

You may hear the term “color space,” “mode” or “profile” when working with a designer. They all mean the same thing. These terms simply refer to the type of color system required for where your logo is going to be reproduced. There are two primary “spaces” and each has unique color characteristics. One is on monitors, TV screens, smartphones & tablets and uses a native RGB (are-gee-bee) color profile. The other is on printed stuff (we’ll talk mostly about paper) and uses a CMYK (see-em-why-kay) setup. To make things a little confusing there is another – Spot Color – which is specifically for printing extremely accurate and consistent colors. And that’s almost all you need to know really.


Some complicated stuff.

The following may seem a little technical, and you won’t use a lot of it in your day-to-day (other than to figure out what files to send to whom,) but it’s not a bad idea to review the whys and wherefores for a better overall color understanding. It may also help explain why that orange in your logo looks different on your website, than it does on your business card. We’ll also show you which files in your digital logo assets should be applicable for which color space.


With monitors and the like there is only one real option – the native color system of any screen, RGB. That’s an acronym of the three colors your monitor uses – red, green and blue – and any color you see on a screen is made up of varying percentages of each.

Key Points: RGB colors are created by mixing varying amounts of red, blue and green light on a screen and are considered “additive” colors (above) – the more light supplied by your monitor, smartphone or tablet, the brighter, and more vibrant, the color. IMPORTANT: some RGB colors WILL NOT convert accurately to either CMYK or Spot Color and literally cannot be printed. Visually, RGB colors are device dependent and may appear differently on various screens. It’s easier, and generally more accurate, to match RGB colors to CMYK colors than vice versa. The potential logo files that can be set up in an RGB color profile are as follows. The less common files are ghosted out:

Here’s a critical thing to keep in mind about RGB colors. They may look differently depending on the calibration of the device they’re being viewed on. If you see a nice blue on the internet on your monitor, it may not look like the same blue on another. If you direct your logo designer to that blue, it may appear totally different to them, and when they sample it, it may be completely different than how you believe it should be. If you want color accuracy and consistency, you really shouldn’t pick colors like this, unless your monitor is bang on (Apple monitors tend to be fairly consistent. PC monitors are all over the place. LCD monitors on laptops are awful for selecting colors as even the viewing angle can make a difference.)
Key Point: If your logo artwork colors are set up in the RGB space, they will generally look as intended on monitors, TV screens, smartphones and tablets. This also includes use on websites, as email signatures, social media avatars and banners.
Key Point: Some RGB colors WILL NOT translate to CMYK, and straight conversion can cause significant and noticeable color shifting if printed. It’s always best, though not always possible, to have two sets of “source files” of your logo – one set up as RGB and another set up as CMYK.
Dos and Don’ts: DON’T send RGB based files to your local print shop. DO use RGB files (raster images only) on anything to do with monitors; websites, email signatures, social media avatars. You may be able to print RGB files accurately on your desktop printer, but it’ll be hit and miss.

CMYK colors.

When it comes to print, it’s a little more complicated as there are two types of color reproduction. The first is known as CMYK, referring to the four inks that combine on a press to make up colors. CMYK is an acronym of those inks; C for Cyan, M for Magenta, Y for Yellow and K for Black (K actually refers to “Key” because the other colors are registered, or “keyed” to it. Regardless, K still means black.) Because of the number of colors (4) CMYK is also referred to as “4 Color” so when your logo is printed using CMYK reproduction, it can be referred to as “4 Color Printing,” “4 Color Process printing” or just “Full Color printing.” You’re probably already familiar with CMYK printing anyway – those are colors of the terribly expensive printer inks you have to replace regularly on your desktop printer which, for our purposes, works basically the same way as offset printing at your local print shop.

Key Points: CMYK colors are created by mixing inks on a printing press and are considered “subtractive” (above) – you begin with a surface, white paper for instance, and then block “or subtract” the amount of light reflected by adding various amounts of ink. IMPORTANT: when viewing CMYK colors on a monitor, and even if the color percentages in the file are accurate for offset printing, they are STILL in an RGB color space – the color imaging is “as close as” and may not preview accurately.

The potential logo files that can be set up in a CMYK color profile are as follows:

Key Points: If your logo artwork colors are set up in a CMYK color profile, they will generally print accurately on business cards, letterheads and brochures at a print shop. While your desktop printer uses CMYK inks, most try to convert RGB images so ANY logo artwork should print reasonably accurately.
Key Points: Most CMYK colors will convert fairly accurately to an RGB equivalent so it’s generally better to select your logo colors from a CMYK mix, or view a swatch-based color numbering system like Pantone.

Spot Color.

Spot Color literally means printing spots of specific colors on the sheet and uses a swatch-based color selection – usually the Pantone Matching System – and individually mixed inks for each Spot Color.

Key Points: Used to be the universal standard of business stationery printing due to economy AND color accuracy. Spot Color printing can now be MORE expensive due to many print shops (and online printers) adopting Four Color (CMYK) gang printing as standard. While Spot Colors are very accurate in printing they may not preview 100% accurately on monitors. Cannot be printed as part of CMYK artwork “as is” but can if converted beforehand. Still the most accurate color system.

Generally, most Spot Color printing only uses two spot colors (technically there could be more, but anything more than two should probably be printed as Four Color CMYK for the same, or less cost.) Spot Color can also be referred to as “2 Color,” 2 Color Spot,” etc. This isn’t as complicated as it sounds – it’s just like picking a numbered paint chip down at the local hardware store, and having them mix up the paint for you. This is SPECIFICALLY for printed items (though can be used to PICK colors for web design) and is used when color accuracy is a must, or on items that aren’t printed using 4-Color Process (some merchandise can ONLY be printed using Spot Color reproduction.)

Key Point: Spot colors MAY NOT preview accurately on monitors and electronic screens (though most have fairly decent screen equivalents.)
Key Points: Spot Color printing is more color accurate and consistent than CMYK. Many online printing companies DO NOT use spot colors because they “gang print” – printing multiple jobs on the same sheet to save cost and to offer “discount” printing. Spot Color reproduction, which used to be cheaper than 4 color process printing for business stationery, can now be more expensive because of this.
Dos and Don’ts: DON’T use color “transparency” in your logo if you expect it to print as a Spot Color. Transparency WILL ALWAYS require full-color printing. A logo with blend or gradients may not be suitable for Spot Color printing either (though there are workarounds in limited instances.)

The Pantone Matching System.

No color guide is complete without at least a passing look at the Pantone Matching System, so let’s do that. If you have any experience with printing at all, you’ve probably heard of colors referred to as a number, preceded by the letters PMS (said as pee-em-ess.) Something like PMS 186 C for example. That’s the acronym for the Pantone Matching System, and the number refers to the catalog number of that specific color in their swatch books. Each of those is known as a “Spot Color.” The ‘C’ by the way, stands for “coated” as in what the color will look like printed on coated paper stock. The letter “U” would indicate how that it would look on uncoated, or matte stock. You should pay attention to this, as there can be noticeable differences between the same color on uncoated vs. coated paper stock. You may be in for a shock when your letterheads (matte) turn out a different color than your business cards (glossy.)

Consistent and predictable colors.

The main benefit of using PMS colors in a logo is consistency and predictability – a PMS color will generally be the same regardless of where you use it, and regardless of what vendor you use to print stuff. That’s the entire point. Another nice thing is that most design software has decent RGB and CMYK equivalents of Pantone numbered colors, so even if you need a CMYK or RGB mix, it shouldn’t be terribly difficult to obtain. Like so:

Machine generated mixes aren’t always exact, but they’re usually close enough that nobody will notice on a monitor or on your business card. Unless you’re a real stickler for your company blue.
Key Point: It’s always more accurate to select from a Pantone swatch book, than selecting a color elsewhere and trying to match it with a Pantone numbered color. Uncoated numbers (prefixed with a “U”) can appear quite differently than the same color number as coated (prefixed with a ‘C’.) This is a factor whenever you’re printing on both – stationery for example – where your cards may be glossy (coated) and your letterhead and envelopes would be matte (uncoated.)