The following is reasonably detailed breakdown of the results from our survey. If you just want a quick summary of the results you can take a look here.

Survey limitations

How do you begin to measure competence or understanding on colour in the community?

Part 1: common questions

Q18 What would you consider to be the ‘primary colours’ when using paint or coloured pencils?

o Cyan, magenta, yellow and black  (3)

o Magenta, yellow and cyan  (1)

o Red, green and blue  (2)

o Red, green and yellow  (4)

Correct answer: Magenta, yellow and cyan

This question was supposed to be a kind-of ‘ice-breaker’ –  an easy one to get you in the mood but it turned out to be quite contentious. Indeed, if you were among the first 100 or so responders you would have seen a slightly different set of answers to those presented above: the correct answer would have been red, yellow and blue, rather than magenta, yellow and cyan indicated above. So which is correct? Why the change?

Well, at school, you were probably taught that the primary colours are red, yellow and blue. I remember this because when I was a kid, growing up in suburban Sydney, there was a song they taught us to help us remember them and I’ve never forgotten it. So, is that the right answer? Well, yes and no… The more you study colour, the more you realise how hard it is to quantify it and there is a lot of disagreement among scholars as to what colour even is, let alone how we define the so-called primaries. But let’s have a crack at it…

The primary colours we learned about in school applied to acrylic paint or water colour mixed up on paper. Mine always ended up with dirty brown but the idea was that you could pretty-much create any colour from combinations of red, yellow and blue paint but nothing actually allowed you to make those colours (red, yellow and blue) so they were (or are) considered fundamental and irreducible elements – aka Primary Colours.

If you try and test this out, you’ll find that it’s not just any blue that behaves this way but a light, turquoise-aqua-blue that printers (and their friends but very few others) refer to as ‘cyan’. Likewise you’ll find that normal, common-or-garden red doesn’t work too well either but if you take a bright fuchsia-pink that printers (and their ilk but very few others) call ‘magenta’ then you’ll get a better result. There’s not too much dispute about the yellow as it happens so… Just yellow on that one. Whew.

Anyway, the fact is, no shade of blue or red or even yellow will work perfectly but the combination works well enough for kids at school, and indeed most of us, if we want to mix up paints or inks for our amusement. Artists will debate this and you won’t find many who happy to have just three paints on their palettes to mix the rest from there, but they may concede that you could get close. Ish…

But coming back to those pesky printer people, they will assure you that the only way to get the range of colours you see in books and magazines is to use combinations of cyan, magenta and yellow. Not only that, but they insist that you need to add in black to really make it sing. That’s where were get the C (cyan), M (magenta), Y (yellow) and K (black) that you have probably come across, particularly if you’ve had the unlovely task of changing the toner in your office printer, or the dinky little cartridges in your home inkjet printer. The K, by the way, is usually considered to be short for ‘key-colour’ – and we all assume this is to avoid confusion with blue if you called it B.

Actually, modern digital printing systems often use more colours than that (I have a 6 colour printer on my desk and Canon make a 10 colour inkjet which is supposed to print like an angel) and there’s a lot more to say about spot colours and fluorescent colours and half-tones and screen angles but that let’s leave all that for now…

Just to make matters worse, there’s a school of thought that says there are no such thing as primary colours but rather ‘opponent hues’ that work on a continuum from yellow through blue, and from red through green. And if you did want to define primary colours they’d need to be ‘imaginary colours’ that you can’t even describe, let alone see, in order to accommodate all the colours that we really can see. Yes, colour science is a nightmare that would make Kafka blush so for now, let’s agree that the primary colours of paints and inks and the like are magenta-red, yellow and cyan-blue.

PS. If you answered ‘Cyan, magenta, yellow and black’ then you got half a point. It wasn’t supposed to be a trick question and some of you may well have thought that’s what we were looking for but, strictly speaking, black isn’t part of the primary-colour-holy-trilogy thing.

Q19 What would be the primary colours of illumination or projected light, such as that of lights on a stage?

o Cyan, magenta and yellow  (5)

o Red, yellow and blue  (4)

o Red, green and blue  (6)

o Red, green and yellow  (7)

o Don’t know 

Correct answer: Red, green and blue

If you read the above, you’ll note that there is some debate about the so-called primaries but most of us concede they are blueish, reddish and yellow. But here’s the rub: that’s only true if you’re talking about paints and inks and pigments and walls and objects and pretty-much anything that isn’t glowing or shining light in your eyes. For everything else there RGB.

If you’re a millennial (or less) the stuff about red, yellow and blue above may have been wasted on you and you may be forgiven for thinking confidently that the primary colours (if there are such things) would be red, green and blue because everywhere you look, there’s a reference to RGB this and RGB that. Indeed, if you spend any time with graphics or images or web pages on a computer (and who doesn’t?) then that’s all you’ll hear about. Web colours in HTML and CSS (the stylesheet language of the web) are expressed as either RGB decimal values or as mysterious triplets of hexadecimal (base 16) numbers which end up as the same thing once they get unravelled. So what’s the skinny?

As if colour mixing wasn’t confounding enough, it works entirely differently when we’re talking about projected light like the stuff that comes from the sun or stars or light bulbs or television screens or monitors or your mobile phone. In that world we speak of ‘additive spaces’ (see below) because the more coloured light you add the brighter it gets until eventually you reach a state of pure enlightenment (Nirvana) where everything is white and your troubles fall away…

The reverse is true for our friends in the RYB/CMYK space: the more paint you add to a canvas or a wall the darker it gets. We call that a ‘subtractive space’. The two ‘spaces’ are, in fact, sort-of negatives of each other.Yellow, for example, could be described as ‘the absence of blue’ or negative blue. To see this in action, you could try staring at a yellow circle on your computer screen for a minute or so then delete it. You’ll be staring at a blueish ‘after image’ or complementary colour. Or to put that another way, if you were to filter out the blue wavelengths of sunlight falling on a normally white wall, you’d end up with a yellowish cast. Which brings us to the next question…

Q20 What colour would result from mixing red and green light, such as that from coloured torches shone on a white wall?

o Cyan blue

o Indigo blue 

o Magenta 

o Reddish green 

o Yellow 

o Don’t know 

Correct answer: Yellow

In this mock-up of coloured lights shining on a white wall, you can see what happens when just two lights overlap or when they all converge to produce white. This is what is happening on your monitor or phone right now. Tiny sets of LEDs (or light filtered by tiny liquid crystals) are combining in each individual pixel to produce the desired mix at that one point. At a distance they all combine into a continuous flow but if you looked up close (really close) you’d see the individual cells. It’s the same in print actually, at least in lithographic (commercial) printing as used in books and magazines. In that case it’s tiny dots of varying sizes (or distances) of cyan, magenta, yellow and black ink that all combine together.

So, if you took just red and green the result would be yellow; red and blue would result in our old friend magenta; and blue and green would graciously give us cyan. These are sometimes called secondary (as opposed to primary) colours and they more-or-less correlate with the primary colours of the the subtractive print space.

If you have Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop or InDesign or just about any other graphics program you can emulate this by creating overlapping coloured circles and applying the ‘screen’ blending mode. If you’re not familiar with blending modes then please leave the room quietly. Blending (or just ‘blend’) modes are one of the most creative tools given to us by Adobe and friends and they can be used in print or screen graphics along with 3D animation, video and compositing.

Q21 What colour would result from mixing red and blue paint?

o Magenta 

o Yellow 

o Orange 

o Purple 

Correct answer: purple

There’s not much to say here really. If you have blue paint and you begin to add red, it will start to look violet then purple. Most people got this right just out of instinct.

Q22 What is generally meant by the term (positive) colour harmony?

o Colours that are opposite each other on the colour whee

o Colours that are close together on the colour wheel

o Colours that seem to go well together

o Colours that appear to have an associated sound or melody

Correct answer: Colours that seem to go well together 

If you search for colour schemes or combinations on Google you’ll get millions of responses, mostly repeating the same information about complimentary, triadic, tetradic and analogous schemes which describe the relationship between colours across the so-called colour wheel but which tell you nothing about whether those colours go well together or not. There is, sadly, no simple formula for that (although I’m working on one!) but this question is really a simple one. It doesn’t ask why or how colours work together, just what do we call it when they do!

Q23 What property relates to the richness or purity of a colour?

o Hue

o Saturation or chroma

o Lightness or brightness

o Value 

Correct answer: Saturation.

As we note above, there are so many words that describe the dimensions of colour. This one is how we describe a colour’s… brilliance, vibrance, colourfulness, richness, purity… All of those could more-or-less apply although in colour science, each of those terms has a particular meaning and none of them quite hit the same mark… Saturation is the term Adobe tends to use in its modelling of colour so it would be familiar to uses of their software. Chroma is a term almost unknown to most (computer based) graphic designers but is well known to artists and those who work with paint or ink and tends to be used in the subtractive space rather than the screen. 

Q24 What is an example of a subtractive colour space?






Correct answer: CMYK

As above, a subtractive space is one in which additional colour makes the result darker rather than lighter. In other words, it’s how colour behaves in ink or paint or toner or pigment or dye but not how it works in illumination or transmission as we experience in sunlight or starlight or candle light or room lighting or computer screens.

Part 2 – Software and Computer

If you said you use software in your work AND you said you work or play in some kind of creative field you would have seen this question…

Q25 What is the colour space of computers and screens?





o XYZ 

Correct answer: RGB

As discussed above, computer screens use transmitted light organised as tiny clusters of red, green and blue cells. The ‘space’ or nature of this environment is additive or active, RGB.

If you said you use software in your work AND you said you work or play in some kind of creative field you would have seen this question…

Q26 What is the default, standard colour space for the web and screen devices?

o Adobe RGB (1998)


o sRGB


o FOGRA39 

Correct answer: sRGB

We’re actually using the term ‘colour space’ in two different contexts in this survey: the first (additive vs. subtractive) is a broader, generic context relating to the behaviour of light. Here we’re being a little more specific: colour space can also be used to describe the gamut or range of colours that a device works within. The sRGB space is the grass-roots, entry-level, default colour space that Microsoft and HP developed back in the late 1990s when cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors roamed in office corridors and phones were something people used to make phone calls… Imagine? It is still widely used today although most handheld, lap-sitting or desk-bound screens are capable of far more colours than this.

As for the others in the list, the Adobe RGB (1998) space is often used by photographers and designers intending to print their work and is big enough to encompass most CMYK colours. LAB is the large ‘device independent’ space used by colour management systems to convert colours from screen to print. HSL is the hue, saturation, lightness control model used by Adobe (so it’s not relevant). And FOGRA39 is a standard profile for European printing.

If you said you use software in your work AND you said you work or play in some kind of creative field you would have seen this question…

Q27 What colour would be represented by the hexadecimal web colour code: #FF0000?

o Red

o Green 

o Blue

o I’ve seen those codes but I couldn’t say what colour it would be

o I’m not familiar with hex colour codes at all

Correct answer: Red

Computers have no time for the decimal (base 10) system of organic earthlings. They prefer to work in the mathematically-sublime world of 8s and 16s. Base-16 (hexadecimal or just ‘hex’ if you’re cool) numbers let you count all the way to 15 before rolling over to the next column. So, if you had 10 apples in base-16 you would have 16 apples in human terms. We think of the digits ’10′ as representing one lot of ten and no ones = ten. Computers would take your 10 apples and read that as one lot of sixteen and zero lots of one = 16 apples. This is why your USB memory stick comes in weird flavours like 64, 128 or 256 Gb, and you monitor or television resolution is something like 1920 x 1080 px: they are all numbers that divide gracefully by 8 so they can be stored efficiently on your computer…

Likewise, the stylesheet language of the web (CSS) uses base-16 numbers to describe colours. They are organised as 3 pairs of numbers representing red, green and blue in that order. Now, since our number system was designed for decimals rather than hexadecimals we need to find some extra characters to stand in for the missing numbers. Thus A = decimal 11, B = 12… And so on to F which is 15 decimal. Note that we don’t need a letter for 16 because that’s represented by the figures 10. The most light you can generate for any one primary is 255 in decimal numbers which would be written as FF in hex. So the number above FF (red) and 00 (green) and 00 (blue) would be very red indeed.

If you said you use software in your work AND you said you work or play in some kind of creative field you would have seen this question…

Q28 What colour would be represented by the values R 30, G 50, B 220

o Reddish 

o Greenish 

o Blueish 

o I’ve seen those codes but I couldn’t say what colour it would be  (4)

o I’m not familiar with RGB colour notation at all

Correct answer: Blueish

This is a variation on the previous question but a little easier since we’re expressing the numbers using decimal numbers rather than hexadecimal. Thus we have some red and some green but a lot of blue. Simples.

If you said you use software in your work AND you said you work or play in some kind of creative field you would have seen this question…



Q30 The image above is adapted from the ‘Color Picker’ used in Adobe Photoshop but it is similar to many other colour selection tools. What property of colour is represented by the narrow bar on the right (A).

o Saturation 

o Lightness 

o Chroma 

o Value 

o Hue

Correct answer: Hue

There are many different ways to describe and model the various dimensions of colour. Adobe, and most other graphics applications, tend to use the hue, saturation, lightness or brightness (HSL or HSB) model and it serves them well enough.

We’re presented with a two-dimensional space on the left allowing you to choose the desired mix of, in this case, saturation (left to right) and lightness (top to bottom). The one-dimensional vertical slider is allowing us to choose the hue or base colour so that’s what we we’re looking for as the answer. In Photoshop, Adobe allow you to change this around so that the vertical slider represents saturation or lightness and the open space becomes a mixture of the remaining two dimensions. You can even make the slider, say, red, with the mixer controlling green and blue; or use the lightness dimension of the LAB colour space (L is lightness) with the mixer set to the A and B channels (red-green and yellow-blue opponency) and so on.

If you said you work with Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom you would have seen this question…

Q31 In Photoshop, what would be the best way to prepare an RGB image for CMYK printing while preserving its appearance?

o Choose Image > Mode > CMYK

o Choose Image > Mode > LAB

o Choose Edit > Convert to Profile…

o Choose Edit > Assign Profile…

Correct answer:  Choose Edit > Convert to Profile…

Yup, you probably got this one wrong. Almost everyone did so we have to lay the blame for that at Adobe’s feet thanks to their arcane system of colour management controls. Despite their role as leaders in creative software, so much of what is in Photoshop is impenetrable to all but the most technical of users. And this is a perfect example…

When you generate colour information, such as the RGB values we discussed above, you’re really only generating the raw material for how those colours could be seen, not the colours themselves. The colours we see are the product of both the raw numbers and the device you’re viewing them on. The numbers alone are like the ingredients of a cake or the notes on a keyboard. It’s only when you bake the cake that you get the finished result. When you play the note, the sound created depends on the type of instrument you’re playing it on, and the way in which it is tuned.

To get around this little engineering hurdle, the ‘industry’ – actually a whole International Colour Consortium (ICC) of vendors and manufacturers like Adobe, Apple, Kodak, Microsoft and Agfa – got together to standardise the way in which a device declares its response to colour information. The result was, and continues to be, the ICC profiles which you may have come across if you’ve ever played around with colour settings in Photoshop or installed a printer driver. If you take the trouble to calibrate your monitor you’ll end up with a profile that describes its unique spectral characteristics but most people just use the generic profile that’s supplied automatically and indeed that’s often good enough.

There is much more to say about profiles than we have room for here but the short version is this: if you want to print what you have on the screen and maintain its appearance, you need to change (convert) the numbers in the image so that the result appears consistent on the destination printer. If you merely choose ‘Mode > CMYK’ you’re doing precisely that but you probably haven’t specified on what kind of machine you’re intending to print it on and the default is usually something like ‘US Web Coated SWOP’ – which is unlikely to be what you’re looking for unless you’re printing a huge run of junk mail. These days Photoshop will prompt you if you choose ‘Image > Mode > CMYK’ and check you’re doing the right thing but up until recently it just used the default profile and few users were aware of what just happened.

Perhaps the more intuitive answer might be to ‘assign’ a profile rather than ‘convert to’ a profile but actually this is unlikely to be the case unless you need to preserve your existing colour information (which may be the case for corporate colours or branding). That may be so but you are likely to see the colours change on screen because you are essentially indicating that you’d like to see what this looks like on a given printer rather than saying, ‘please change the numbers behind the image so that it looks like it does now on that given printer’.

Confused? Nothing says ‘I hate this stuff and I have better things to do’ more than the term ‘colour management’ – which is, by the way, the practice of ‘managing’ colour from idea to screen to printer or other destination. This is a huge topic and the last definitive text on the subject was published by PeachPit in the early 2000s when most people had cathode-ray tube monitors and colour printing was in its infancy. Since that time the whole process has become much easier, and we tend to print so much less, but it’s still an important topic for photographers, designers and publishers needing to ensure consistent branding and reproduction.

If you said you use software in your work AND you said you work or play in some kind of creative field AND you print or paint things that exist beyond the screen you would have seen this question…

Q32 What is generally meant by the term ‘out of gamut’ when choosing or defining a colour?

o There is insufficient ink to produce that colour

o That colour cannot be perceived by those with a common colour deficiency

o That colour cannot be reproduced or printed on a given system

Correct answer:  That colour cannot be reproduced or printed on a given system

The word ‘gamut’ is a little old-fashioned and rarely used beyond the expression ’to run the gamut’ of something – that is, to use or include the whole spectrum of possibilities for a given context. In this case, it refers to the range of colours a device can reproduce and usually comes up when you are defining or specifying a colour for use in print that you can see on the screen (in the RGB space) but can’t necessarily print in the CMYK space.

CIE Gamut Comparison

The diagram above (well the main bit) is the CIE’s iconic chromaticity diagram dating all the way back to 1931. It’s supposed to represent all the colours we humans (well a standard version of us anyway) can see and it’s a great example of the impenetrable nature of colour science. Notice the axes are marked enigmatically as ‘x’ and ‘y’ and we are given no clue as to what the numbers on the scale mean at all (the blue ones are in Nanometres – or 1 millionth of a mm – as a measure of wavelength). Well it might help to know that colour is better modelled in three dimensions rather than two. The dimensions could be red, green and blue, or they could be L (luminance) and AB (2 hue dimensions) but in this case it’s hue, chroma/saturation and luminance (sort of light intensity). But to keep things (relatively) simple we take a slice through the middle of our 3D model and pretty-much ignore the luminance dimension altogether, arriving at this odd, unicorn-shoe shape. Voila.

If you want to understand this a little better than this we have some articles on our main site Colourverse or you can wade through the dense entries in Wikipedia and see how you go! There’s also a nice, piece on Medium by Chandler Abraham which is quite accessible.

Coming back to the original question though, the triangles that have been added represent gamuts of colour spaces such as sRGB, Adobe 1998 and a typical CMYK gamut as might be found on a lithographic press. It shows that some colours can be seen on screen but not printed and quite a few can be printed but not seen on screen – well, not within the modest sRGB space anyway.

Q33 Are you familiar with the Pantone Matching System (PMS)?

Pantone began life in the late 1950s at a time when colour was bursting into lives through cinema, advertising and eventually television (think: Mad Men). They are best known for their iconic ‘fan books’ of coloured swatches and, in the English-speaking world at least, they continue to dominate the vocabulary of colour choices made by marketers and business owners to this day. The system is not as popular in interior design or architecture, where colours tend to be named and catalogued by paint manufacturers or other systems such as the German RAL system but even still it’s a name that most people know.

We were curious as to the extent to which people were aware of, or have used the Pantone system. Most people have heard of it, far fewer have used it.

If you said you use software in your work AND you said you work or play in some kind of creative field AND you print or paint things that exist beyond the screen AND you are familiar with the Pantone system you would have seen this question…

Q34 A client on a budget wants you to select a Pantone colour for their business cards. What colour range are you likely to choose from?

o Standard PMS colours from the Pantone Formula guide

o CMYK Process colours from the Pantone Bridge guides

o I don’t know the difference between the Formula Guides and the Bridge Guides

Correct answer:  CMYK Process colours from the Pantone Bridge guides

For many years the Formula Guides were Pantone’s main product. These provided a ‘formula’ for printers to mix a solid ink to achieve a match to the printed swatches they supplied, expressed as a PMS (Pantone Matching System) colour. Today we call these solid, pre-mixed inks ‘spot colours’ as opposed to the mix-on-the-page CMYK ‘process’ colours commonly used for every-day printing tasks. Spot colours are seldom used today although they are often selected by mistake in software like Adobe InDesign or Illustrator where they are usually converted to CMYK at some stage in the production process. If not, it can add quite a bit of cost to the job because an extra, dedicated ink plate is required above and beyond the 4 CMYK plates.

In the early 2000s, Pantone responded to the change in printing trends by introducing their Bridge Guides which provide a conversion table (a bridge) from the solid spot colours to their CMYK equivalents, along with close RGB versions. Printers will tell you you can’t get a perfect match this way due to the limited gamut of CMYK (there’s that word again) but for most common tasks you can get close enough. Regardless, it’s much better to choose colours from the CMYK range in the first place because those can be reliably reproduced at a reasonable cost.

Despite this, many organisations, institutions and governments (most by my reckoning) specify their corporate colour schemes or ‘brand’ colours in terms of PMS colours that will seldom see the light of print, as it were. Frustrating though this is (well, to me anyway) it shows that what Pantone really offer is a common language for colour. This is something we at Lingua Colour are attempting to address…

Q35 Are you familiar with the Munsell colour system?

o Yes, I have used the Munsell system

o Yes but I’ve never used it

o Sounds familiar but…

o I’ve never heard of the Munsell system

The Munsell System is a far more technically and scientifically thorough system of colour than Pantone and yet few designers have even heard of it. Now Munsell and Pantone are not really the same thing (Pantone is really a large catalogue of colours whereas Munsell is a comprehensive colour order system) and they’re now owned by the same company but it’s a shame that it is not better known. Perhaps it’s because it is complicated and expensive whereas Pantone books are merely expensive!


Display This Question:

If What region do you live in? = UK or Europe

And In your particular creative field, do you
ever print, make or manufacture something physical or ‘… = Yes, in print

And If

What creative software, if any, do you use on a
regular basis for your work, study or personal in… = Adobe Illustrator or

Or What creative software, if any, do you use
on a regular basis for your work, study or personal in… = Adobe InDesign or
Affinity Designer or Publisher

If you said you use software in your work AND you said you work or play in some kind of creative field AND you print or paint things that exist beyond the screen AND you use Adobe InDesign or similar AND you live in Europe then you would have seen this question…

Q36 Which of these device profiles would you typically choose when preparing a PDF from InDesign, Illustrator or similar to be sent to a printer in Europe or the UK?

o sRGB

o US Web Coated (SWOP)

o Coated FOGRA39 

o Euroscale Coated

o I usually accept the defaults

o I never prepare PDFs for printing

Correct answer:  FOGRA39

This question was really designed to gauge how familiar people are with the need to specify a printing profile. All printing conditions are different, and they differ from region to region, so we decided to narrow this down to just Europe/UK where a likely answer could be defined.

FOGRA39 is not really a standard but a data set which forms the basis of the ISO 12647 standard. FOGRA are a print research firm based in Germany where a lot of the world’s printing technology comes from (Heidleberg, Agfa etc). FOGRA39 came out in 2006 and it has served as the most common profile for offset lithography in Europe ever since although other data sets such as FOGRA51 and 52 are now emerging to replace it. The ‘Coated’ bit refers to coated paper, which is most commonly used commercially although uncoated and recycled papers are also in common use.

If you said you use software in your work AND you said you work or play in some kind of creative field AND you print or paint things that exist beyond the screen then you would have seen this question…

Q37 How confident would you be preparing an image or document for colour printing via PDF? Please answer all 4 related questions (A through D).

A. Choose the correct PDF settings
B. Choose the correct colour profile
C. Convert RGB to CMYK colours
D. Choose the correct image resolution

No right answers here of course. We were hoping to get a sense of how confident people are in producing PDFs as a critical part of the print workflow. All of these are important decision points when generating a PDF prior to printing and yet few delegates where confident in doing so.

Printing, of course, is only one aspect of the use of colour in the design process, and certainly it is a diminishing one, but it’s still an important dimension to most designer’s work.