RGB vs CMYK What's the Difference and Why Should You Care?

When I was first experimenting with graphic design software I was so excited to play with the app that I usually didn't look much at all the options that come up when one is opening a new document. Oh, but I should have. Here's why...

When opening a new document, the option is presented to you to choose a "color space" or "color format." Here you are presented with the options of CMYK or RGB. I used to just leave it alone and used whatever the default was. It turns out, it actually matters a lot which one you choose.

To make the proper choice you need to think ahead. I know, I know, it is not as fun and artsy to plan your art ahead but if you intend to make your art public or available for purchase you really do want to get it right. 

CMYK stands for cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. It is what you need if you intend to have your work printed. Even if you are at home, your jet-ink printer will likely use these same colored inks. So if your work will become wall art, fabric, greeting cards, wallpaper, posters, t-shirts, mugs or any physical product, you want to make sure your designs look as you intend in the CYMK color format. 

RGB stands for red, green, and blue. Keep in mind that CMYK is produced by ink while RGB is the produced by light. This means that RGB is the color format that applies to things that use light to show color (a.k.a. screens). So if you are designing an app, website, PowerPoint presentation or anything else that will be shown on a screen (phone, tablet, computer, etc...) you should design in RGB.

Since CMYK can only make colors based on four colors of ink, it can produce far fewer colors than RGB. This is most noticeable with bright, neon and pastel colors. 

See for yourself. Bellow, I have some samples of the same colors in both color formats. You will find the difference can be astounding.

You can tell the difference between the colors because you are reading this page on a screen that produces light and therefore can see the RGB color. If you tried to print this page the printer will most likely simply not be able to make the color as the RGB side shows and you would be left with a long wide rectangle of the color as it appears in the CMYK side.

How to use this knowledge

So what should you do now that you can tell the difference? Make sure that you look at your project/design in the color space it will be published in. 

Again, think of your final product. For example, it can be very disappointing to design a t-shirt with bright neon letters only to have it look like the neon lights are pretty dim and sad. 

So why not design everything in CMYK to avoid the disappointment? Because RGB can open so many color doors for you it would be sad to waste them. Imagine your website, cover images, profiles and anything else you plan to do on a screen being so much brighter and multicolored! RGB is great to make colors pop off the screen. 

What if you don't know what color space you are working on?

Software that is designed for heavy-duty graphic design such as Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, Affinity Designer, Affinity Photo or Corel Draw will always have the option to choose, you may just need to look up how in the help section. 

If you are designing in an app on your phone or tablet, these are usually meant to design for social media posts such as Pinterest or Instagram and hence optimized to work well on screens. In these cases, it is good to assume you are working in an RGB color format. To be sure, it can be a good idea to open your final product in a program that can show you your work in both color spaces to avoid surprises. This is especially important in you plan to produce physical copies of your work or sell it. 

In summary...

  • RGB should be used to publish items that will be seen on a screen
  • CMYK should be used to publish physical items that will be printed.
  • RGB can produce the colors of CMYK, but CMYK cannot produce many RGB colors.
  • Just because you see it on your screen one way doesn't mean the final product will look like what you see on your screen. If you are making an item for print you must check what it will look like in CMYK.

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