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Understand the Difference between CMYK and RGB and Why It’s Important


Clients I’ve worked with expect their stuff to look good and work as designed. And most don’t sweat the process. Nor should they. That’s the designers job. But informing the client and setting expectations is integral to your success as a designer. As such, part of your job is to educate your customers. Sometimes that’s easy. Other times, not so much. In this post, I aim to help my readers understand the difference between CMYK and RGB and why it’s important.

So let’s dive right in.



Let’s start with CMYK. It’s pronounced as four distinct letters. CMYK is an acronym for the standard 4 color inks used in printing: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key (Black). Although other special premixed (spot) colors can be made, these 4 colors are core to what makes up “full-color printing“. Almost any color you desire is possible in 4-color printing. I say almost because not all colors are possible. White is not. And some colors available in the RGB color spectrum are not possible either. That’s because printing is not an exact science. And sometimes you may need to adjust colors to take into account the nuances of the paper or the individual press. That’s because inks tend to adhere to paper a bit heavier than what you see on your monitor. I recommend to always perform a press check to ensure the final product is what you expect.

CMYK is a subtractive process. Subtractive color mixing means that one begins with white and ends with black; as color is added, the result gets darker and darker with black as the eventual outcome. The subtractive primaries of cyan, magenta, and yellow are the opposing colors to red, green, and blue.

That leads us to RGB.



The other way colors are created is through the RGB color process. Like CMYK, it also is pronounced as distinct letters. RGB is an acronym for the 3 primary colors that combine to make up all other colors in the spectrum: Red, Green, and Blue. This color spectrum is much larger than that of CMYK. So much so that it is impossible for printing presses to reproduce exact colors seen on electronic devices. That’s why you must update all images and artwork to use the CMYK color scheme when printing. If you don’t, the result will be unexpected and most likely won’t pass a quality check during your press check. 

If CMYK is a subtractive process, RGB is an additive one. In additive color mixing, you begin with black. As more and more color is added the closer to white your color will become. Combining two pure additive primaries produces a subtractive primary. For example, combining red and green will result in yellow. Remember, RGB is for digital screens like your phone, tablet, or desktop monitor. Even your TV uses RGB.

And that’s color in a nutshell. 

Understanding the difference between CMYK and RGB and why it’s important will prove invaluable. When called upon, if nothing else remember:

  1. CMYK is for anything printed and RGB is for any device.
  2. The RGB color spectrum is larger than the CMYK spectrum. Not all colors can be reproduced in CMYK.

If you want to learn more about graphic design and the terms involved in the industry check out my post on the Definitions of Graphic Design.