RGB and CMYK Explained

November 29, 2013 |

As many designers rarely work with both video and print, I’m going to explain the difference between RGB and CMYK and when to use which when you’re designing.

RGB (Red, Green and Blue)

All television and computer screens output color information as red, green and blue. This is because every pixel on the screen has 3 different color channels. RGB colors are additive, all the colors turned to it’s highest brightness at the same time produces pure white. All the channels turned to it’s lowest brightness creates the dark colors.

CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Key)

Everything that is printed uses CMYK or a similar combination. This is because printer ink uses a combination of the different colors to create. CMYK is subtractive. CMY combined, theoretically makes black, however this makes more of a muddy black so the addition of K makes real black and helps make more accurate dark colors.

When designing, it’s important to know before you start the project if it’s for web, television or print. The first thing you should do is setup the color mode to RGB or CMYK. I know what you’re thinking, Can’t you just make something in RGB then convert it later? The answer is yes, however, you might be sacrificing certain colors that are “out of gamut” and will not look correct in the CMYK mode. In some cases your editing software will replace the color with a similar color that is available in CMYK. When designing for a client that already has specific colors in it’s brand its important that everything is made with that exact color and printed with that exact color. Otherwise you might get a very angry client and lose a lot of money when you reprint.

So, it’s very important to find out in the beginning of a project whether the final design will be printed or if it will only be viewed on a screen.

While there’s certainly a lot more that can be said about RGB and CMYK, this article gives you a basic understanding. You can read the links in the resources for more detailed information.


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Post Written by Matt Vojacek

Matt is the founder/art director of Zwelly Co. since 2010. Matt is also currently a motion design and web freelance artist in Columbus, OH.

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