Colour Consistency in Design

Or how to make sure your logo is always crimson and never maroon.

Colour, and the way we describe it, is a very subjective thing. My idea of crimson could be significantly different from yours. Which is why in graphic design, to be able to be technically precise about colour, we talk in the same terms that our printers and computer screens do.

CMYK_RGBColour for Print

The classic 4-colour printing process works by mixing different proportions of four inks. These are Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black (CMYK) which are expressed in percentages depending on how much ink coverage is used. So for instance a basic strong black would use none of the first three inks, and black at 100%. It’s CMYK breakdown would be C0 M0 Y0 K100. While a medium grey colour might have the colour breakdown of C0 M0 Y0 K60. The delicious shade of red we were trying to describe earlier in this post was made up of 0% cyan, 92% magenta, 65% yellow and 0% black, or C0 M92 Y65 K0.

Colour on Screen

Computer screens create colour by mixing light rather than ink. Different proportions of Red Green and Blue (RGB) light are used to create a full range of colours A pure red might be R100 G0 B0, while a slightly purplier red could be R100 G0 B15.

Why not to rely on colour breakdowns

Unfortunately it is impossible to guarantee that your office printer will produce the same colour as ours even though they are both using the same CMYK breakdown. Send the file to a professional printer, and they will probably produce a third variation. These differences are caused by the different printers we are using, the way they are calibrated, even by the quality of the ink and how much ink is left in each cartridge. Likewise, my computer screen may be behaving differently from yours depending on its make, model, age or user-personalised settings.

A big colour-consistency headache!

So, how do I know that the colour red I’m looking at on my screen = the same red that you, my client, printed out from your office printer = the same red that the professional printer is going to produce? The answer is I don’t. What we need is a universal, 100% reliable colour guide that we can all refer back to.

Pantone Red


Pantone is the only internationally recognised colour communication system. If you haven’t seen a Pantone Swatch Book before, I can best describe it as an extreme Dulux Paint Colour Card. In this book you will find almost every shade under the sun, each with its own unique Pantone reference number. If I tell a printer I want my red to look like Pantone 032C, he now has something reliable to refer to. To take colour consistency to the next level, we can even ask him to print using a special pantone spot colour. That means rather than mixing cyan, magenta, yellow and black inks, we can use a dedicated pot of red ink.

Patenting a Pantone – Cadbury Purple

Your corporate colour can become an instantly recognisable and thus extremely valuable aspect of your brand.  Some companies go to great lengths to;

  • ensure perfect colour consistency every time
  • prevent rivals from ‘stealing their colour property’.

Cadbury was famously so protective of Pantone 2685C (that’s Dairy Milk purple to you and me) that it trademarked the colour in 1995 and for over twenty years attempted to fight off any challenges.

Let’s sum up

  • Colours can be described in terms of their CMYK (print) or RGB (on screen) breakdowns.
  • Remember, the way a colour appears on your computer screen or printed out from your office printer, is not necessarily how it will appear on someone else’s screen or printer.
  • To ensure we are all talking about the same shade, we can refer to a colour’s Pantone reference.
  • To be even more precise we can print using a special Pantone ink.

Obviously this all takes time and care – which is why first rate colour consistency is expensive. As a business, you need to decide which colours absolutely have to be consistent (for instance a corporate logotype) and which you can afford to be more relaxed about. This information, once agreed on and written down, can be included in a set of Visual Identity Guidelines for your business. A very useful document, this can be shared with printers and suppliers, and will help ensure the consistent use of your brand colours no matter where they are being applied. Finally, when colour is critical – always make sure you let us know. That way we can take the necessary steps to make sure your crimson doesn’t go maroon!

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