Color Doesn’t Exist, Understanding + Design

Sources / Additional Reading Color Is A Wave, The Electromagnetic Spectrum Captain Disillusion - Color Captain Disillusion Technical Overviews Playlist Rods & Cones In Your Eyes Color Gamut Is Value More Important Than Color? Subtractive Color Process (CMYK) Additive Color Process (RGB) File Format Compression Methods The Ultimate Samsung Galaxy Comparison Pantone Books Will Fade Over Time The Dress (Blue & Black vs. White & Gold)

Key Takeaways

  • COLOR VARIES: The ways in which color can vary are many and vast. Don’t expect 100% this-to-that conversion.
  • DON’T STRESS: If something looks odd on someone else’s machine or phone, don’t freak out too much.
  • BE RESOURCEFUL: Use the conversion provided as much as possible, but remember the true north to aim at if what you perceive.

Lecture Outline:

Basic Color Modes:

  • CMYK:
  • Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black (Key).
  • Used for printed materials
  • Called “Process Color” or “4-Color Process”
  • Subtractive Color Process—the more you add you get black


  • Red, Green, Blue
  • Used for screens
  • How your eye perceives light via short, medium, long length cones in your eyes
  • Additive Color Process—the more you add you get white

Pantone / PMS:

  • Pantone is a company which provides this system, sometimes called PMS
  • Used for printed materials
  • The letter or book used specifies the type of substrate it’s intended for. C = Coated Paper, U = Uncoated Paper, TPX = Textiles, etc.
  • Can be more expensive to print

Color Can Vary Because Of:

  • What you print it on
  • Whether it’s ink on paper (subtractive)
  • Coated or Uncoated paper
  • Whether the color is accurately calibrated or not
  • or Light on screen (additive)
  • What type of device (age, size, etc)
  • What Gamma settings (Mac OS / Windows / Etc.)
  • What color profiles you use (honor or not)
  • What lighting conditions it’s viewed under
  • The eyes of the person viewing it (color blindness, etc)
  • And so on…

Color Doesn’t Actually Exist

  • Color is a wavelength of light, it’s not a touchable thing
  • A standard chromaticity diagram can be abstracted to the color wheel we’re used to
  • Color blind people have a different chromaticity diagram than everyone else

Color Gamut:

  • A “gamut” is just how many colors something can reproduce.
  • So every human’s eye can see a portion of the visible spectrum
  • Every device and printing method has a gamut of what colors it can reproduce
  • RGB has the largest gamut, sRGB color mode is the industry standard. 16.7 million colors
  • CMYK has a much more limited gamut
  • Pantones also have a limited gamut compared to RGB

Issues with CMYK

  • You view and prepare it on an RGB monitor, so it will never look as it does on screen

Issues with RGB:

  • Every device has it’s own settings for brightness, color, and gamut, and gamma in terms of how it will reproduce an image
  • Once an image leaves your screen, you have very little control over how it shows up for someone else.
  • RGB probably has the largest amount of variation in terms of final reproduction due to variance in device type

Issues with Pantones:

  • They show up different on different types of paper
  • Pantone books fade over time, chips can vary

The Environment

  • The environment you’re in affects how you perceive color
  • Color-constancy with your brain can shift colors
  • Every “color issue” with a client is more of a customer service hurdle than a technical one