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As a designer, it is essential to know when to use RGB vs CMYK – CMYK: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (In the printing press days when plates were being used the black plate was typically call the “key” plate because it carried the important key information relating to the artistic detail.), and  RGB: red, green, blue colors on projects. A good rule of thumb is anything dealing with the web should always be in RGB and printed material should be in CMYK. But very few designers and clients know why this is the standard.

Here’s why…

Back in the printing press days, to achieve color, each ink (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) had its own plate. First the printer would lay down one color, wait for it to dry, lay down another color, wait for it to dry and so on. Printing presses still work on that same theory to this day with the exception that offset printers can use a “spot” color which can be added to achieve a specific color swatch (usually a Pantone color). As the printing age has progressed, the digital printer has come a long way, allowing to print in RGB as well. But the standard still stays the same – use CMYK on all printing needs, as the color will appear differently if printed in RGB.

On the other end, computer monitors give off colored light known as RGB (CMYK is colored ink). Computer monitors have a larger color gamut than printing, which is why a computer can display a million more colors than what can be achieved with printing. Printing deals with absorption and reflection of wavelengths of which we perceive as color (CMYK). Printing also has its own limited color gamut. A lot of times customers will note that something looked different on screen than it does on paper and it is because of the different color ranges that computer monitors and printing allows.

To go into further depth, RGB colors are also known as “additive color”, because there are no colors and the colors are being added together to achieve further colors or until the outcome is white (look at the color chart image directly below, the inside color is white because it is all the colors added together). This is because our eyes receive no reflected light and they perceive the color to be black. However, when you add portions of red + green + blue the outcome is the CMYK colors as shown below.

RGB Colors

RGB colors are additive

While in return, subtract cyan – magenta – yellow – black and you will get the RGB colors. CMYK colors are subtractive for this very reason that it starts with all colors and when colors are subtracted the outcome is white (see below color swatch, the inside color is black). This is because the colors absorb the light.

CMYK Colors

CMYK colors are subtractive

To further summarize what has been discussed, when it comes to deciding to use RGB vs CMYK, first figure out what the output will be. If the output will be on a computer monitor then RGB is the way to go. If the piece will be printed, CMYK is usually the standard and the best option. Thats all there is to it when it comes to using RGB vs CMYK colors on your projects, please feel free to join the discussion below. We’d love to hear from you!


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Comments 33

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  2. happy girlfriend

    Thank you I am studying graphic design at my university and this was very clear and helpful :)
    As far as RGB, how do you know what a graphic will really look like on a website? Different computer monitors sometimes display colors differently.

    1. Michele Allen

      Unfortunately, you can’t control other peoples monitors. Low quality monitors typically have a harder time with dark colors or low contrast text and images.

  3. Kennedy

    I always design with RBG and the outcome makes me argue with my operator, i will change to CMYK and see the results. Thanks

  4. Anjali

    What if it will be both seen online and will be printed also? How do you know whats best to use when its both?

    1. Michele Allen

      Your printed work should be done in Pantone and/or CMYK. Your online work should be in RGB. We use the Solid Pantone Color to Process Guide to get accurate colors in all medias.

  5. gavin merlino

    Hi – so when it comes to Printing shades of grey – say, for a business card. Its better to use CMYK; but can you elaborate on what cmyk values are best for ‘Cool’ shades of grey. Starting with print black? thanks so much

    1. Michele Allen

      If we are shooting for a particular color, we use the Pantone Color Matching System. You can get the CMYK values of the colors that you want to achieve by purchasing their color books. If you go based off your monitor, there could be variances when you print. The Pantone library has a huge library of cool grays and various shades of black to choose from.

    1. Michele Allen

      This is a bit tricky. You have a couple options, you can use the Pantone Color Matching System book with PMS, RGB and CMYK color values in it or get actual samples or a book from Benjamin Moore Color Library that are closest to what you are trying to match and compare visually. If you search online, you can find a color converter that will translate your CMYK or RGB to the closest Pantone color and then you can compare that to paint chips. However, I suggest finding the paint chips first and then trying to incorporate into your project. Good luck! Let us know what worked for you.

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  8. Polly Riddell

    How do you actually know what color is going to print on your printed document. I have been very disappointed in the past with the printed color as compared to the color displayed on my computer screen. The document was set at CMYK. How do I assure a primary shade of yellow and not get a green shade of yellow?

  9. David

    This is confusing, can a computer show what a printed image can or can’t it.

    On the other end, computer monitors give off colored light known as RGB (CMYK is colored ink.). This is because monitors are limited on the color spectrum range that they can produce due to the cathode ray tubes. Computer monitors have a larger color gamut than printing that can be achieved, which is why a computer can display a million more colors than what can be achieved with printing.

    1. Michele Allen

      Hi David, thanks for commenting. We have adjusted the wording in the article so that it is a little more clear. To answer your question a computer cannot perfectly replicate what is printed, it can get close but it will not be an exact match. Hope this helps!

    2. andy

      It is confusing, but a PC cannot show you EXACTLY what colour you will be printing, but the best way to see what it may look like is to convert rgb to cymk.

      rgb has millions more colours than cymk, so if you keep image as rgb, the colour shades may appear slightly different when printed. Converting to CYMK lowers the amount of colours available (as printing would) and therefore you see the picture roughly what it looks like as a print.

      But you have to remember- quality of the printer, quality of ink you use, quality and shade of paper you use, printer health, all play a part in the overall tones of colour print. a pc monitor will never account for these either.

      These are the main reasons why you can never see what you are printing EXACTLY on a monitor screen, but cymk mode will give you a good idea

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  13. Dillon

    In the CMYK explanation above the CMYK color swatches, I think you have your blacks and whites mixed up.

    1. starlo

      Hi Dillon, thanks for taking the time to comment. You are absolutely correct! That is a typo on our part, we have gone ahead and adjusted it to read correctly. Thanks again for pointing it out!

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    1. starlo

      Hello Emi! Would you care to elaborate? We love to learn and improve and would appreciate your input. Thank you for your interest!

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