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Why Do I Need to Know the Difference Between RGB and CMYK?

Posted by The Boingo Graphics Team on Sep 24, 2019 8:48:00 AM

As a graphic designer, doing anything in color requires you to be at least somewhat familiar with the two most common color models: RGB (red, green, blue) and CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black). Fundamentally, RGB is best for websites and digital communications, while CMYK is better for print materials. Most design fields recognize RGB as the primary colors, while CMYK is a subtractive model of color. Understanding the RGB and CMYK difference is an essential part of successful graphic design. Here’s what you need to know.


Why the RGB and CMYK Difference Is Important in Graphic Design

Failing to understand the fundamental difference between RGB and CMYK can lead to print marketing materials that do not have the same colors as your digital mockup. They are two very different color models with limitations on how to use each. Trying to print a file in RGB will most likely result in a printed poster, brochure, or pamphlet with the wrong colors. This can be a costly and time-consuming problem to fix. Understanding the difference and knowing how to prevent color problems is key to successful graphic design and printing.


RGB Model vs. CMYK Model

RGB is an additive color model, while CMYK is subtractive. RGB uses white as a combination of all primary colors and black as the absence of light. CMYK, on the other hand, uses white as the natural color of the print background and black as a combination of colored inks. Graphic designers and print providers use the RGB color model for any type of media that transmits light, such as computer screens. RGB is ideal for digital media designs because these mediums emit color as red, green, or blue light.

With the RGB color model, pixels on a digital monitor are – if viewed with a magnifying glass – all one of three colors: red, green, or blue. The white light emitted through the screen blends the three colors on the eye’s retina to create a wide range of other perceived colors. With RGB, the more color beams the device emits, the closer the color gets to white. Not emitting any beams, however, leads to the color black. This is the opposite of how CYMK works.

CYMK is best for print materials because print mediums use colored inks for messaging. CMYK subtracts colors from natural white light and turns them into pigments or dyes. Printers then put these pigments onto paper in tiny cyan, magenta, yellow, and black dots – spread out or close together to create the desired colors. With CYMK, the more colored ink placed on a page, the closer the color gets to black. Subtracting cyan, magenta, yellow, and black inks create white – or the original color of the paper or background. RGB color values range from 0 to 255, while CMYK ranges from 0-100%.


How to Convert an RGB File to CMYK

RGB has a wider range, or gamut, of colors compared to CMYK. CMYK prints cannot reproduce all RGB model colors. It is not possible to reproduce all the colors you see on a screen in printed ink, since ink does not emit light. If you design an RGB graphic for the web, it may not look the same if you try to print it. To print a design you create digitally (whether it uses RGB or any other color model) and avoid color problems, you must first convert the file to CMYK. This process will depend on your software program.

  • Adobe Photoshop CS6. Select Objects > Image from the menu bar. Choose “Mode,” then select “CMYK Color.”
  • Adobe Illustrator CS6. Select Objects >Edit from the menu bar. Find and click “Edit Colors,” then select “Convert to CMYK.”
  • Microsoft Publisher. Select Tools from the menu bar. Then “Commercial Printing Tools.” Click Color Printing > Process Colors (CMYK) > OK.

Failing to convert your file will mean that the printer will do so automatically. This does not give you the opportunity to see what your print will look like before the printer completes the job. Automatic color model correction can lead to an unpleasant surprise when you see the finished product. It may not have the right colors to match your brand. Avoid this potentially costly issue by either converting your color model or designing in CMYK from the start (if your software permits).


About Color Spaces 

If you want to dive deeper into the RGB and CMYK difference, explore color spaces. A color space is a specific way of using a color model. Both RGB and CMYK have many different color spaces, each with a different gamut. The two most common color spaces are Adobe RGB and sRGB. Standard RGB, or sRGB, is what almost every screen uses. This color space is ideal for images your company will display on the web, since most screens your audience will use can translate this color space.

Adobe RGB, on the other hand, offers a wider color spectrum – but not all monitors will be able to display them. Thus, it is only appropriate to design in Adobe RGB if you know the materials are for print. For-print images can use Adobe RGB instead of CMYK as long as the printer used has been adapted for this color space. Whether your printer requests an RGB or CMYK file depends on the provider and type of printer. Find out before sending over your files.


The Conclusion

Graphic designers need both RGB and CMYK to create logos and images for the web and print. Neither will work perfectly across both mediums. In addition, neither color model is “perfect,” since neither can reproduce all available colors in the spectrum. However, both models work well enough to trick the human eye into seeing the colors as realistic.

As a graphic designer, you do not necessarily need to know the technical side of how either model works to be an effective visual communicator. You do, however, at least need to know which one to use for each type of media. This is basic information that will ensure the quality and accuracy of your visual marketing materials.

If you plan on designing something that will only exist through digital mediums, such as mobile devices, computers, and television, designing in RGB is enough. If, however, you need to print any marketing materials, you must convert your designs into CMYK before sending them to the printer. Otherwise, your printed colors won’t look quite right.


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Topics: Boingo Graphics

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