using colour in print and on screen | a holywell guide

Toby Matthews

Creative Designer

using colour in print and on screen | a holywell guide

As you can imagine, colour plays a key role in just about everything we do, and accurate and high-quality colour reproduction is something in which we take great pride. With this in mind here’s a helpful basic guide to colour modes, choosing colour palettes and the meaning colours convey.

Abstract of bright cyan, yellow and magenta coloured ink mixing to make other colours

colour modes and systems

In printing, we primarily use 4 colours: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (CMYK) to reproduce colour images. These 4 colours can be overlaid to produce a range of different colours. Sometimes, for example when printing business stationery, we print using spot colours. These are pre-mixed inks which match the Pantone colour system.


RGB, CMYK and Pantone colours

CMYK                                                                   RGB                                                              Pantone 

On screen, images are displayed as RGB (red-green-blue), and when printed will be made up of CMYK (cyan-magenta-yellow-black). Moving from one of these colour modes to another can cause variations in colour from what is viewed on-screen to the printed product. RGB has a much wider range, therefore, giving more depth, making images look brighter and more colourful compared to the printed product. What’s more, because all screens are different, with variations in brightness and contrast settings, an image may look different, even from one screen to the next. We use colour profiles in our design applications to simulate the final printed colours so that what we see on screen is as close to what can be produced on our presses as we can make it.

Diagram showing different colour spectrums (gamuts) for RGB colours, CMYK colours and Pantone colours

This graph shows a representation of the different colour spectrums achievable with each colour mode. As you can see CMYK has a much smaller colour gamut than RGB.

  • Colour tip 1: When printing type and in particular very fine type it is better you use 100% of a colour and to avoid light tints in particular. These tints can create what we call ‘toothy’ edges to type where the print screen used to make the tint does not have a crisp solid edge.

Diagram showing the effect of using colour tints for type

colour meanings

Colours have widely accepted meanings and associations, although significantly these vary from culture to culture. Each colour can have positive and negative connotations:

Yellow swatchYellow | +  bright, energy, sun, creativity, intellect, happy |   irresponsible, unstable

Orange swatchOrange | +  bright, energy, sun, creativity, intellect, happy |   arrogance, insincerity

Red swatchRed | +  love, energy, power, strength, passion, heat |   anger, danger, warning

Pink swatchPink | + healthy, happy, feminine, compassion, sweet, playful |   weak, immaturity

Purple swatchPurple | +  royalty, nobility, spirituality, luxury, ambition |   mystery, moodiness

Blue swatchBlue | + tranquillity, love, loyalty, security, trust, intelligence |  coldness, fear

Turquoise swatchTurquoise | +  spiritual, healing, protection, sophisticated |   envy

Green swatchGreen | +  money, growth, fertility, freshness, healing |   envy jealousy, guilt

Beige swatchBeige | +  dependable, flexible, crisp, conservative |   dull, boring, conservative

Brown swatchBrown | +  friendly, earth, outdoors, longevity, conservative |   dogmatic, conservative

Grey swatchGrey | +  security, reliability, intelligence, solid |   gloomy, sad, conservative

Black swatchBlack | +  protection, dramatic, classy, formality |   death, evil, mystery

Silver swatchSilver | +  glamorous, high tech, graceful, sleek |   dreamer, insincere

Gold swatchGold | +  wealth, prosperity, valuable, traditional |   greed, dreamer

  • Colour tip 2: Limit your brand palette to two or three main colours. You can add additional complementary colours (see below for advice on choosing a colour palette) to create a good mix to work with.

Calm colour palette

choosing a colour palette

Once you’ve chosen a primary colour(s) that best suits your purpose, it's usual to create a colour palette to work with. Here are a few tried and tested methods to help decide on an ideal colour palette:

  • Monochrome
    A scheme derived from a single base hue using tints, shades and tones. If a colour is made lighter by adding white, the result is called a tint. If black is added, the darker version is called a shade. If grey is added, the result is a different tone.

  • Complementary
    Colours that are opposite each other on the colour wheel are considered to be complementary colours.  Complementary colours are tricky to use in large doses, but work well when you want something to stand out.

  • Split complementary
    Is a variation of the complementary colour scheme. From the base colour, it uses the two colours adjacent to its complement.  This has the same strong visual contrast as the complementary colour scheme but creates less tension.

  • Double complementary
    This scheme uses four colours arranged into two complementary pairs. This rich colour scheme offers plenty of possibilities for variation. It works best if you allow one colour to be dominant.

  • Analogous
    Uses colours that are next to each other on the colour wheel. They usually match well and create a comfortable design.
    Make sure you have enough contrast when choosing an analogous colour scheme.

  • Triad
    A triadic colour scheme uses colours that are evenly spaced around the colour wheel.
    Triadic colour harmonies tend to be quite vibrant, even if you use pale or unsaturated versions of your hues.

For an example of a colour palette designed to support a brand take a look at the work we did for the relaunched Sudanese Programme branding.

  • Colour tip 3: Choose contrasting colours that stand out but try to avoid colours that clash with one another. Avoid using white-out type on pale backgrounds and dark type on dark backgrounds unless you are seeking to achieve a particular effect. Don't place type on a busy image or patterned background.

Text colour and image combinations to avoid


Download the information in this blog as a handy colour crib sheet and check out these other helpful guides to design and printing:

For tailor-made colour advice, give our studio a call on 01865 242098 or contact us using the button below.

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