Which system you use depends on where and how you will use the colour.
Most software systems that you might use to identify and build colours will come with RGB, Hex, HSB and CMYK options built in. And as long as you know where to use these, it’s usually relatively easy to switch between them.
Pantones tend to be used in more specialised areas, particularly packaging. So it’s unlikely you’ll need them on a day to day basis.
Let’s have a quick look at each system.
RGB stands for Red-Green-Blue. You see it most often with the identification of colours on a screen. So anything with computers, TVs or electronics for example.
By allocating a number between 0 and 255 for each of these three colours, you create a “code” for that number. So, in this example the Primary colour Red, has a value of Red 255, Green 0 and Blue 0. That is, it has the maximum amount of Red and the minimum amount of any other colour. Which if you remember the definition of primary colours should make sense. This would normally be shortened to R255, G0, B0.
You might wonder why it’s not RYB as in Red-Yellow-Blue to match the primary colours?
That’s because this colour scheme is based on the colour properties of light. That’s how screens and devices ‘create’ colour. And in the way that light makes up colour, it uses Red, Green and Blue to make colour. Even though you actually make “green” from the primary colours of yellow and blue.
Don’t worry, if that’s confusing, we think it’s confusing too. You just need to be aware that when it comes to colour in marketing, you’ll definitely use the RGB system more than you will refer to “primary colours”. So if you only want to remember one of those, use that one.
Hex is an offshoot of the RGB system. You usually find it when you work with websites and website design. It creates a six-character short code for the RGB definition. This is dropped into HTML code to identify colours.
Its use is not limited to websites though. Often RGB and Hex codes sit together and are interchangeable. As you can see in the example above which uses the colour model from Keynote.
We also used the Hex codes to identify the colours in our Australian and banking brand examples at the start of the guide.
Because Hex is one value, rather than three values, it can often be quicker to use when you use multiple colour codes.
So, you only have to copy and paste one value rather than three for example. That’s why you’ll see our default colour reference tends to be Hex as it’s the easiest to use.
Another alternative to the RGB systems is the HSB system. This stands for Hue, Saturation and Brightness. It’s used in similar places to the RGB system. It is primarily about light-based colour, so it is used in computers, TVs and electronics. As we covered above, the Hue is the primary, secondary or tertiary colour that has no white, black or grey.
Saturation and Brightness let you play around with the black, white and grey elements of the colour more easily than the RGB model does. They work on a scale of 0 to 100, where in simple terms, 0 saturation, 100 brightness creates “white” and 100 saturation, 0 brightness creates “black”. But when you combine the saturation and brightness at different values between 0 and 100, this creates different variations of white (tint), black (shade) and grey (tone) on the hue.
It was originally designed as a way to make the way we work with colours more ‘human-centric’ compared to how the RGB system works.
But, it’s much less widely used that the RGB systems. It tends to crop up in more specialised design areas. It’s quite common in photography editing for example. Tints, shades and tones can make a difference to the effect and impact of an image, and HSB is an easier way to change these.
CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and BlacK (CMYK). It is the most common colour system when the colour identification is needed for a physical, tangible item and not on a screen. So, in contrast with RGB, Hex or HSB, it’s not based on the colour properties of light.
It is most commonly used in printed items and anything that has to be painted. From a colour in marketing point of view, the most common places where you would need the CMYK reference would be when you develop packaging. And in some forms of traditional media like outdoor billboards and magazine advertising.
It’s a different system because when you print on to a physical item rather than define a colour on a screen, the physical item properties can impact on the colour.