Understanding Your Color Space

In grade school, we learned how to mix primary colors (yellow, blue, and red), that yellow + blue = green, blue + red = purple, red + yellow = orange. Guess what? That was your first lesson in color theory. It’s not that simple when you are trying to color match your prints, though. It gets complicated in offset and digital printing vs. what you see on your monitor and smart phone.


Establishing your BRAND color is a great place to start, but it won’t cut it to simply say “We use dark green”. In fact, just knowing your company’s Pantone color values isn’t enough, since those values are generally used for specific printing processes. What about spot colors vs. CMYK vs. RGB?

One of the keys to having a successful brand is consistency. Every company should have an official visual identity guide that defines the basics: proper use of logos, fonts, and colors. Even if you’re not a designer, you still need a primary grasp on what should be included.

Each of these categories has its own place within visual identity brands. We must go back to the root of color theory.

Subtractive Colors
In print, we use cyan, magenta, and yellow (CMY), which are known as subtractive colors. Subtractive means that one begins with white and ends with black: as you add color, the result gets darker. So, what happens when this is put to use? If you print CMY inks on paper, they absorb the light, your eye receives no reflected light from the paper and perceives black (black is used in the printing process to deepen the color). CMYK, the 4 color process, is a subtractive color process.

Additive Colors
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there is additive color. If you are working on a computer, the colors you see on the screen are created with light. These colors consist of Red, Green, and Blue (RGB). When those are combined, you get white. Essentially, this is the reverse of the subtractive process – as more color is added, the result is lighter and ends with white. RGB is additive process.

How can you apply this to your business?
Understanding the difference between subtractive and additive colors, and how each process works will help you determine what color process you would need to use for illuminated media like your website – you would want to work dark to light (the additive process). If you were printing a catalog, you would want to work light to dark (paper to ink; the subtractive process). Knowing how each of these work and having visual identity branding guidelines for your company will strengthen your brand. Understanding color theory will better ensure your brand stays consistent across all media – from your iPhone, to that billboard on the highway, from your computer monitor, to your direct mail.

Published by

Brad Weston

Brad has over 35 years of print and marketing communications experience. In his older years he is still a bit of a “smart-ass” but is working on being less obnoxious. He thrives on being an alchemist, seeing things of value when others do not.