RGB vs. CMYK vs. CIE - OMG IDK!?

line drawn colored pencils with a question mark above them in black and white

In the design world today, it’s vital to know color basics and their differences. Picking the right color for your Brand or assets is essential. Color can create different emotions, depending on their use. The colors we see are different wavelengths of light. What we can see is very limited to the actual electromagnetic spectrum. The cones and rods in our eyes are used to detect the colors, along with black, white, and grey. Sometimes we see the color coming directly from a light source or indirectly. This is the basis of the two main color models. The two main types of color models being: Additive and Subtractive. Additive models use light, while subtractive is primarily used in printing. 

RGB Color Model

The RGB color model is one of the most common color models used today. This color model is an additive color model where Red, Green, and Blue light are added together in various ways to create a broad spectrum of colors. This color system only applies to devices that emit light, however, like computer monitors and TVs. This relates closely to how we perceive color, though it doesn’t represent the full spectrum of human vision. There are about 216 web-safe RGB colors depicted by Hex Codes being used in Web Design today. The color we see comes from the wavelengths reflected. RGBA is the same as RGB, but in this case, Transparency is added. HEX is just another notation for RGB, otherwise known as Hexadecimal or Hex Codes.

CMYK Color Model

CMYK, or four color process, is a subtractive color model mostly used in printing. CMYK partially or completely masks colors on a white background, reducing the light that would otherwise reflect. The color coming from this is what’s left from the color absorbed. This is why this model is called subtractive because inks subtract the brightness from a white background. CMYK spectrum is smaller than the RGB spectrum and doesn’t represent the brightness achieved in RGB colors. PMS, Pantone Matching System, is a standard for Print, like CMYK. Pantone’s 1114 colors are commonly used with designers as they are often more rich and vibrant in comparison to CMYK. 

CIE Color Model

Another less commonly known color model is the CIE color model. This model maps all the different colors than an average person can see. This model was developed to be independent of any means of producing color and is based as closely as possible to how humans can see colors. The CIE divides the color into two parts: chromaticity and brightness. All colors have different brightness values, but their chromaticity is the same. You may notice this color model isn’t shaped similar to a triangle. This is since no three colors can be used as primaries as they won’t reproduce all the colors in the spectrum of colors that humans can see. 

It’s difficult to predict what color setting users will have on their monitors when it comes to digital colors and knowing which color system to use. Every eye sees colors slightly different, anyways, but there are some ways to ensure a consistent output. Your color system should be well documented in your Brand Guidelines. After connecting your Sho.ai Brand system, you can sync or update your Brand’s color across every possible device and medium with one click of a finger.


Whittney Twomey

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