CMYK vs RGB: What Does This Mumbo Jumbo Mean?

cmyk vs rgb

Every printer dreads hearing these words from a client: “But the printed color doesn’t match the color on my screen. I want it to look like the color on my screen.” Explaining the difference between CMYK vs RGB colors when we are sitting in Michigan and our client is looking at a screen in California can be tough.

RGB, or red, green, blue, are the primary colors we all learned about in elementary school. All computer and television screens transmit colors in RGB, which has the capability to show more vibrant colors as well as a more extensive array of colors. RGB colors are often referred to as additive colors, because the image starts out black (like when your screen is shut off and is black) and colors are mixed or added together to make an image. In fact, when all three colors are combined in equal portions, the result is the color white. But the main thing to remember about RGB colors is that it is a device dependent color scheme, meaning that the colors change from device to device. Have you ever stood in front of a wall of televisions at Best Buy, trying to decide which one you liked, and suddenly realized that the colors look different from screen to screen? That is exactly the issue a printing company encounters when trying to print a client’s printing project. Except the printer never sees the client’s computer screen or the shade of color the client is looking at.

CMYK, or cyan, magenta, yellow, and black, are the four colors used in printing to make every color under the sun. CMYK is also referred to as process color or four color. With CMYK, you start with a white background and mask colors on that background, with the ink reducing the light on the white background. It is called a subtractive model, because the inks subtract brightness from the white background. The combination of equal portions of cyan, magenta, and black produces a dark brownish color, not black. Thus, black ink was added to provide a richer looking black color. It is also more cost effective to print just black ink than to combine all three colors. The important thing to remember about CMYK colors is that they are not device dependent. Thus, the color will typically look more similar when printed on different devices. It will still look different than a computer screen, since computer screens can only imperfectly approximate CMYK colors.

For a good visual explanation of CMYK vs RGB, check out these color representations found on the photoshop4artists blog.

The Problem with CMYK vs RGB Explanations

From that long explanation, you can see how hard it is to explain the difference between additive and subtractive colors, or CMYK vs RBG, to someone who just wants to see the color on their screen in their printed piece. But while this explanation might be informative, your interest probably is in translating the whole CMYK vs RGB mumbo jumbo into how to get your printing project to look great. So here are our recommendations regarding CMYK vs RGB:

  • If you know you are going to print a design you are working on, convert any graphics to CMYK before inserting them in your document.
  • If your design is just going to be displayed on our website or in an email, keep the settings at RGB, which will give your colors a more vibrant look.

We hope this explanation of CMYK vs RGB colors was helpful. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us.

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