The Color Conundrum : Graphic Design Color Profiling


Profiling, and we are strictly talking design here not the racism pervading the war on terror, is an important aspect of design, that quite honestly, I took for granted. Now being that my main forte falls in the written word aspect of the design world, this was not a completely unforeseen happenstance.

But I am learning. (And for those curious, osmosis, not the best method for trying to pick up the profiles, but I am trying much harder now, with much more reliable learning techniques…like asking Angie.) Not everyone is the same boat as me, I understand this, but we still felt that we could stand to do a post, providing a breakdown of the different color profiles that are used in graphic design.

Profiling is important to take note of for the beginners just stepping into the waters so they don’t quickly find themselves over their heads and making mistakes that cause their work to suffer. When we first began learning about the differences between print and graphic design the main stand-out for me was the different color profiles, this was when I first took note. It was something I had never given any kind of thought to. I had never considered different types of design would require a different set of colors to work with for hue accuracy.

Color Header

Given the fact that Dead Wings is going to be focused more on the print design arena, and that print designs require a standard CMYK color profile as opposed to the more commonly used RGB, we thought a post about the different Color Profiles used in the different areas of graphic design was more than relevant…for us anyway. So in case you aren’t familiar with the why’s and the when’s of the different profiles, then here is a taste. And if you are familiar, here is another chance to brush up and savor the flavor.

Profiles and the ICC


The ICC – International Color Consortium is a group whose purpose ‘is to promote the use and adoption of open, vendor-neutral, cross-platform color management systems.’ In most cases, these folks set the standards, and most profiles you see talked about, are ICC profiles.

What are we talking about when we talk about a color profile? Well, basically, we are talking about a range of colors, in this case in regards to a digital image. Though more complexly it’s discussed in the write up Introduction to the ICC profile format. Essentially, every digital imaging device, from scanner to printer, monitor to camera, has it’s own color reproduction capabilities, and they tend to vary between them.

Enter the ICC and the profile system to drop a little consistency into the processes, and make sure that images get properly displayed across the board, regardless of the chosen method of presentation.



The RGB profile, is the one you want to use if you intend for your graphic designs to be displayed and viewed via a monitor or some other graphical interface. It is also, generally speaking, the most widely used of the color profiles. A three color model, RGB uses a combination of Red Green and Blue to mix it’s palette. In most cases when people refer to RGB they are talking about sRGB, and many of the masses don’t know this, but there is another RGB profile out there to make things that much more complicated.

(Bit of a disclaimer. The use of ‘many of the masses’ in the previous statement was intended to make the writer feel less of a dolt for not having known this himself. In this case, the word ‘many’ may actually only mean Rob.)

Adobe RGB is the other common profile in this arena, that actually offers a wider range of colors but with fewer degrees of hue. This makes it more optimal for photo printing, but not for a digital presentation of any kind. Meanwhile, sRGB works in a narrower range of colors, but offers more degrees of hue allowing for more color detail than Adobe’s version. The sRGB, pioneered by Microsoft and HP, is the standard color space for nearly all monitors made and all browsers developed.



The CMYK profile as we said before, is the profile to use for any designs you intend to print. Just as most digital displays are built in the RGB space, most printing devices are set using the CMYK color spaces. This profile uses a four color model to make up it’s derivable spectrum, and is sometimes referred to as process color or four color. Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key (or Black) are the colors that mix and mingle to create the color you need for your printable imaging.

CMYK is a subtractive color framework, as opposed to the RGB profiles which are additive color models. (Did I lose you? It lost me.) What it means, is the CMYK model works by subtracting brightness from a white background, or layering colors over one another with a typically white background. While in the RGB model and all other additive frameworks white is the so-called additive and is achieved by mixing the three primary colors, CMYK models start with white base and mask over it to achieve it’s results.



The Pantone profile, is the set of specifically designated colors as created by the Pantone company. This is the profile to use if you are wealthy, with a flair for tedium, and have a bit of snobbery in your genes. Totally kidding…it’s never the profile to use. Hopefully they, and their users, have a sense of humor about these things. But seriously, on the theme of consistency of color, primarily of the print variety the PMS (Pantone Matching System) is currently implemented in many manufacturing industries.

This proprietary color space was built from a noble enough principle. The idea that when a design moves into production stages, whatever the device used to render the color, the colors don’t lose any of their richness for there essentially is no translation that has to be made. Simply use the catalog to pull the color’s code and enter it into the color selector in your graphics program and you will be assured that you are getting the color you intend as your design gets produced. Of course Pantone recommends that you purchase a new catalog annually, as their inks tend to fade, and if that happens, then you are no longer getting an accurate depiction of the color.

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  • Dian

    more freebies maybe :P
    thx for the t-shirts designer’s toolbox :D

  • Rob

    @ Dian – Thanks for the comments on this post about nothing to do with this post whatsoever. The sentiment is about a 7.5 but the follow through may need a little fine-tuning, I only give it about a 2. :D

    …and there will be more freebies, just later. Thanks again.

  • CK

    While you’ve surely included some useful information about color for designers, your upfront political statement – “…not the racism pervading the war on terror” – is better suited for some paragraph near the end of your article, if included at all. People have come to your sight to learn about design, not be exposed to your particular political opinion and, whatever that sentiment may or may not be, humorous or serious, politics makes strange bedfellows and will cause many to turn away from such postings.

    Related to color use, I have also found another resourceful site at Have a good week.

  • Rob

    @ CK – While I respect and appreciate your opinion, I am going to have to disagree. For numerous reasons, actually. Number 1 is because Dead Wings is about attitude, and so I will not refrain from letting that attitude pervade my writing and other creative pursuits here on this site. Number 2 I write for a number of different sites and on this one here, I will never bite my tongue or hold it. Especially given that our current socio-political climate is all about silencing the voices of dissent. I firmly hold the belief that too many people allow themselves and their ideas to be bowed or bent by this climate, and I will not.

    On this site, if I think of something and I want to say it, I will. And I will make no apologies about it. If this turns people away from my site, then so be it. There are many other sites out there that will suit them better and I do not begrudge them this act at all. They may have come here for design, and they will get it to, but they will also get uncensored Rob along with it. Take it or leave it. I will just keep doing what I’m doing.

    Thanks for the link, and again, your thoughts. Take care.

  • Rob

    @ Jeremy – :D

  • JeremyOLED

    I come here more for The Patented Rob ‘tude than I do for design stuff

  • Clayton Shumway

    Thanks for the useful post. Color basics is a good place to start for up and coming artists. And CK, chill out, it’s a blog written by a PERSON with opinions. That’s what makes blogs so great! Opinion-ate on, Rob.

    • Rob Bowen

      Thanks, Clayton, I appreciate the kind words. Really glad you found the post useful, we thought it was an important place for folks to start also. And the opinions will not falter. :D

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