RGB vs CMYK: What’s the Difference in Printing?

Posted by Top Custom Print on

If you own a business and have ever gotten something printed, you may have wondered why the color of the print you received looks different than how it appeared on your computer. Chances are, the design file that was submitted was in RGB which can look vastly different than CMYK.
(Image source: mediafrontier)

So what is RGB?

RGB is an acronym for the colors red, green, and blue. It is an additive color model that achieves different colors by adding the colors red, green, and blue. The technology you interact with on a daily basis uses this color model to produce colored picture. This can be anything from a TV, computer, mobile device, or anything with a screen.
(Image source: mediafrontier)

So what is CMYK?

CMYK is also an acronym that stands for cyan, magenta, yellow and “key” or black. Unlike RGB, it is a subtractive color model. The colors in CMYK subtract red, green, and blue from white light. You can kind of think of it as the opposite of the RGB color model. CMYK is used for inkjet printing and dye-sublimation.

How does your choice of color model affect printing?

It may not seem like a big deal, but designing something in RGB if needs to get printed can often produce lackluster results. It is recommended that when designing anything that has a chance of being printed, that it is designed in CMYK first. This can be anything from a logo, banner, business card, etc.
There are printer ink color limitations with CMYK such as bright neon colors. If you begin a design in CMYK, you may also notice that some colors appear less saturated, and some colors are a bit more difficult to achieve. For instance, a design with bright purple in RGB, could end up looking a little on the blue side after it is converted for CMYK printing.

I already finished the design. Is it too late to change?

If you are reading this post in a panic, don’t worry, there is still time to convert your file to CMYK. The programs most commonly used for this are Photoshop, Illustrator, or inDesign.
Here is a useful Lynda.com tutorial on how to convert an RGB image to CMYK while retaining luminance:

When should I use RGB?

RGB can still be used for anything that will be displayed on the web or that will be displayed on a screen. This is why it is important when choosing brand colors to select both RGB and CMYK versions. When you are a smaller company just starting out, you may be able to get away with it. However, as your company grows and brand awareness becomes a bigger emphasis, it is important to keep your brand colors as similar as possible on screen and in person. Think of Starbucks or Coca-Cola, their colors are vibrant, consistent, and associated with their brand.
pantone color match
(Image source: Pantone)

Can I get color matching when printing?

While CMYK seems limiting when it comes to print, there are other printing processes which allow color matching. Pantone is perhaps the most commonly used method to match color when printing. Pantone colors are created with a palette of 18 basic colors, which provides more colors than CMYK.
Typically, to achieve a Pantone match, a company or designer must provide a physical color to the printer that offers color match. This can be a business card, paint sample, or fabric swatch. The printer sends back different swatches that they think best match the color you provided and from there you select the Pantone color you would like to go with.
The downside with Pantone color matching is the time and cost to get it done. If you are in a pinch, or do not have a strict branding manual, Pantone matching may not be right for you.

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