Start Your Logo Designs in CMYK

January 24, 2021

Choosing the colors for your logo is like choosing the name for your baby. If you mess it up, everyone will make fun of you forever and ever. Ok, it’s probably not that drastic, but it is one of the most consequential choices you will make.

Since it’s such a big deal, you probably want to get off on the right foot. You’ve probably heard of all sorts of methods for picking colors and finding neat little color palettes, but what color gamut should you select colors for first? What if your logo is primarily for an app or a website? What if your logo will live mainly on printed materials? Does it matter?

As the title of this post suggests, my answer is to start in CMYK.

Why choose colors from the CMYK gamut first?

Firstly, CMYK is a smaller color gamut than RGB. That means fewer colors can be made by combining cyan, magenta, yellow, and black inks than by mixing red, green, and blue light (RGB). Now, I realize that this is counter-intuitive — wouldn’t you want more colors to choose from? The answer is actually no, not if you’re looking for color consistency across your visual branding.

Comparison of RGB and CMYK color gamuts


For the sake of consistency, you want to start with the more restricted palette (CMYK) because you KNOW there will be a match in the more expanded palette (RGB). If you were to pick an ultra-saturated RGB color first, you might be majorly disappointed that there is nothing in the CMYK gamut that even comes close to a match. Why experience such a tremendous disappointment when you don’t have to?

Accurate Color Formulas

In this vein of thinking, it’s essential to think about your color mixes as well. Since you’re driving this color-picking tour, you can create lovely, whole-number percentages for your color mixes. Here is an example of a lovely yellow-green CMYK mix.

Illustrator color formula window

Why is it essential to have whole-numbers in your color mixes? Is it vanity? Is it some manifestation of designerly superiority? No! It’s pretty much impossible for printers to produce colors with fractional mixes. You will never get a print that accurately replicates C=53.64 M=11.92 Y= 2.83 K=1.17. Why bother?

CMYK to RGB Conversion

CMYK mixes will always convert to a perfect hex code for RGB, but RGB colors will sometimes convert to these bizarre fractional mixes in CMYK. Yet another reason to start from CMYK.

Illustrator color window

Color Bridge Strategy

There is one more advantage to starting with CMYK. If you follow the strategy I’m about to outline, you can knock out your CMYK and Pantone selection simultaneously.

  1. Go to your swatch panel and click the flout menu.
  2. From there, select Open Swatch Library > Color Books > Pantone + CMYK Coated.
  3. Select your logo colors from the swatches in the Pantone + CMYK Coated color book.
Menu for opening color books in Adobe Illustrator

The beauty of the Pantone + CMYK Coated color book is that the swatches are CMYK mixes with Pantone names. This means you are picking a CMYK color, but the best Pantone match for that color is included in the swatch name. If you ever need to print in Pantone, just give the printer the Pantone number from the swatch name. Easy peasy! Check out this GIF to see the difference between a Pantone + CMYK Coated swatch and a standard Pantone swatch.

Pantone color conversion method

This technique’s downside is that you are limited to the swatches within the Pantone + CMYK Coated color book.

Shameless Plug

The Logo Package has a much more efficient method for converting your logo colors to Pantone, AND it’s more accurate too. The Logo Package Express extension for Adobe Illustrator not only makes every logo variation your client needs in just a few clicks — it can also automatically convert your logos between RGB and CMYK with ease.

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