RGB sphere

If You Don’t Use Color Theory In Your Branding, You’re Doing It Wrong

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Table of Contents

Color and Branding

Color has a profound effect on the way people perceive a brand. Since colors have the ability to evoke unique emotions, it’s important for companies to choose fitting colors for their brand(s).

Have you ever wondered why airplane seats are almost always dark blue? Or what makes airline colors so iconic and recognizable? In this series about color theory, we will be discussing color and why it is so integral to aviation.

Brand Example: Alaska Airlines

In 2016, Alaska Airlines unveiled a major brand update.1 It had been more than 15 years since their last major brand change. In their rebranding, Alaska Airlines seized the opportunity to choose a fresh color palette that represented the unique qualities of their brand.

For their primary color palette, Alaska Airlines chose Midnight Blue and White.2 Midnight Blue was inspired by the night sky, “a strong neutral that represents performance.”

The secondary color palette includes Atlas Blue, Breeze Blue, and Tropical Green. These colors were influenced by the mid-tones of the aurora borealis—a very significant event in parts of the Northern Hemisphere such as Alaska. The colors are also “reminiscent of the tropical regions Alaska serves including Hawaii and Costa Rica.”

The tertiary palette comprises Calm Blue, Mist Gray, and Palm Green. These colors are muted and peaceful, intended to “brighten the day” of Alaska Airlines passengers.

While choosing a color palette might appear to be simple, there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes.

For example, each color needs associated CMYK values for print materials, a hexadecimal (HEX) code for usage across web pages, RGB values for digital images (such as JPEGs and PNGs), and unique mixes for physical paint colors.

And, despite the colors’ diverse designations, they should match as closely as possible to one another for a brand to maintain consistency across platforms.

Additive Vs. Subtractive Color

When considering how colors interact in combination, it’s important to understand the distinction between additive and subtractive color mixing.

Additive color mixing describes the combination (addition) of colors via light mixtures. An example includes colors created from overlapping beams of varying colored lights.

Example of additive color. Red, green, and blue lights overlap to create yellow, cyan, magenta, and white.
Example of Additive Color.
Example of Subtractive Color. Source: blog.thepapermillstore.com

Subtractive color mixing relates to colors achieved by reflection from materials such as paints and pigments. If one shines a white light (which includes all colors of the visual spectrum) at an object that’s painted red, the surface of the object absorbs (subtracts) all the colors of the spectrum except for red, which is reflected onto the eyes of the viewer.

What is the Difference Between RGB and CMYK?

Graphic representing RGB color space.
RGB Color Space

Every color space has distinct capabilities and limitations. For example, RGB—an abbreviation of red, green, and blue—is an additive color space used in the context of colors and light; RGB is limited in that it cannot be effectually used to understand or describe subtractive color mixing.

If you’ve ever looked closely at a computer or television monitor, you might have noticed hundreds of tiny red, green, and blue lights. Various combinations (additions) and intensities of these lights create the images we see on our screens.

Closeup of LCD Computer Screen. Lights combine to create the letters R, G, and B, in their respective colors.
Closeup of LCD Computer Screen. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Graphic representing CMYK color space. Overlapping circles of cyan, magenta, and yellow.
CMYK Color Space

CMYK stands for cyan, magenta, yellow, and key (or black) and is a subtractive color mixing model. CMYK color space is often used when dealing with print materials. Nearly every color of the visible spectrum can be achieved from a mixture of cyan, magenta, yellow, black, and white ink.

If you take a magnifying glass to an image printed using a CMYK printer, you’ll notice numerous cyan, magenta, yellow, and black dots in various configurations. These dots add up to the printed images we see. Pantone is one of the leading companies to create CMYK inks for digital printers.

Closeup of an Image Printed Using a digital CMYK Printer. Thousands of cyan, magenta, and yellow dots combine to create an image.
Closeup of an Image Printed Using a digital CMYK Printer. Wikimedia Commons

What is CIELAB, or L*a*b*, Color Space?

CIELAB, or L*a*b*, is a color space related to how humans perceive color visually. L*a*b* color space is often represented by a sphere. Like CMYK, L*a*b* is subtractive.

Graphic of L*a*b* color space sphere.
L*a*b* Color Space Sphere

The L* in L*a*b* represents lightness and is measured on a scale from 0 to 100—0 being 100% dark, and 100 being 100% light. The a* variable represents a scale of green to red (-128 to 128). The b* variable represents a scale of blue to yellow (-128 to 128). 

How Color Theory is Used at Pacmin Studios

Color mixing is a core component of the Pacmin process to reproduce brand colors with extreme accuracy. Each of the aforementioned color spaces is used throughout the process to develop branded models with remarkable precision.

For example, the graphics department uses RGB color space when sharing renderings of airplane model liveries. Using an RGB document profile produces bright, rich colors for approval on computer screens.

CMYK color space is used when developing digital prints and decals. Adequate levels of cyan, magenta, yellow, black, and white ink combine to create vibrant decals.

Konica Minolta CM-2600d Spectrophotometer. Used to take readings of color samples.
Konica Minolta CM-2600d Spectrophotometer. Source: sensing.konicaminolta.us

Lastly, L*a*b* color space is used when matching colors for silkscreen printers. The decals Pacmin creates using silkscreen are not composed of CMYK dots. Instead, the colors are made from solid inks which have been mixed by Pacmin’s color mixing department for the highest quality and most accurate results.

The color mixing department matches color swatches from mainline paint brands used on actual aircraft. A spectrophotometer scans color chips and outputs L*a*b* readings which the color mixers use to determine which inks to combine.

Stay tuned as we further explore the use of color in aviation and aerospace marketing.

Learn more about our custom display models or contact us for a custom model quote.

By Joshua Knopf

Production Expeditor at PacMin Studios


  1. Alaska Airlines Unveils First Major Brand Change in 25 Years. https://investor.alaskaair.com/news-releases/news-release-details/alaska-airlines-unveils-first-major-brand-change-25-years
  2. Alaska Brand Guidelines. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5c58929990f904c2d00742d7/t/5df2998e92c2512f27a3ded2/1576180140745/Alaska+Brand+Guidlines+2019_R13.pdf