What's the Difference Between RGB vs CMYK?

Nov 10, 2020 ·   Graphic Design Tips
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By Arni Fornolles, Art Director - Elite Marketing

Color modes determine how a photo will be represented on screen or in print. Depending on where and how the final result is displayed, one color mode is always better than the other.  Color modes include RGB (millions of colors), CMYK (four-printed colors), Index mode (256 colors), Grayscale mode (256 grays) and Bitmap mode (2 colors).

The two most common color modes for mixing color in graphic design are RGB and CMYK.  As a quick reference, the RGB color mode is best for digital work, while CMYK is used for print products.

What is the difference between RGB and CMYK?

Whether you’re a designer or you’re having a design made, it’s important to know the difference between the RGB and CMYK color modes, so you can plan and optimize each stage of the design process.

RGB
RGB (Red, Green and Blue) is the color space for digital images. RGB are additive colors and are what we see when looking at a computer monitor or television screen.  Essentially, designers use the RGB color mode if your image will be displayed on any kind of screen, as the tiny dots that make up our displays are composed of RGB information.

Designers can control aspects like saturation, vibrancy and shading by modifying any of the three source colors. Because it’s done digitally, the designer manipulates how the light on the screen manifests to create the color they want.

When to use RGB?
This would go for anything that involves computers, smartphones, tablets, TVs, cameras, etc.

Use RGB if your design project involves: Web design, Online Ads, Social Media Posts, Videos, Digital graphics, etc.

RGB file formats:

  • JPEGs are ideal for RGB files because they’re a nice middle-ground between file size and quality, and they’re readable almost anywhere.
  • PSD is the standard source file for RGB documents, assuming all team members are working with Adobe Photoshop.
  • PNGs support transparency and are better for graphics that need to be superimposed over others. Consider this file type for interface elements like buttons, icons or banners.
  • GIFs capture motion, so if you’re using an animated element, such as a moving logo or a bouncing icon, this file type would be ideal.

What is CMYK?
CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Key/Black) is the color space for printed materials.

A printing machine creates images by combining CMYK colors to varying degrees with physical ink. This is known as subtractive mixing. All colors start as blank white, and each layer of ink reduces the initial brightness to create the preferred color. When all colors are mixed together, they create pure black.

When to use CMYK?
Use CMYK for any project design that will be physically printed, not viewed on a screen. If you need to recreate your design with ink or paint, the CMYK color mode will give you more accurate results.  Many professional printers or publishers require that images for print must be converted from RGB to CMYK before being printed. This is because the RGB color spectrum (displays) is much more wide then the CMYK spectrum (ink), and during conversion from RGB to CMYK, the appearance of certain colors may look different.

Use to CMYK if your project involves: Stationaries, Business Cards, Stickers, Flyers, Signs, Brochures, Promotional Items, etc.

What are the best file formats for CMYK?

CMYK file formats:

  • PDFs are ideal for CMYK files, because they are compatible with most programs.
  • AI is the standard source file for CMYK, assuming all team members are working with Adobe Illustrator.
  • EPS can be a great source file alternative to AI because it is compatible with other vector programs.

All things considered, it’s always best to consult your printer beforehand to find out which file format they prefer.

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