CMYK vs. RGB: What’s the Difference and Why Does It Matter?

Vandelay Design may receive compensation from companies, products, and services covered on our site. For more details, please refer to our Disclosure page.
CMYK vs RGB: Colorful space Illustration
Illustration via Envato Elements

Most people think of print when they hear the term CMYK and digital when they hear RGB, but do you really know how each color mode works?

RGB and CMYK are two different ways of representing colors, and if you understand the difference between them, you’ll be better equipped to create stunning designs that look great in any medium.

In this article, we’ll explain what the acronyms CMYK and RGB stand for, what each color mode is used for, and the main differences between them. By the end, you’ll know everything you need to decide which color mode is right for your next project.

CMYK vs. RGB Overview

The main difference between the CMYK and RGB color modes is that CMYK is used for designs that will be printed, and RGB is used for designs that will be viewed on a screen.

Both CMYK and RGB are “color modes,” or systems that tell your computer how to mix and represent color. CMYK is most often used for printed materials, while RGB is used for digital displays, like TVs and the mobile device, tablet, or monitor you’re reading this article from.

But to fully understand why and when to use either CMYK or RGB, we must take a closer look at how each color mode works.

Why Your Choice of Color Modes is Important

Your choice of color mode is important because it can hugely impact the final appearance of your project — whether you’re printing it or designing it for the screen.

For example, if you design something in RGB and then convert it to CMYK for print, the color will almost always shift, sometimes quite dramatically. The same is true if you design something in CMYK and then convert it to RGB.

Additionally, certain colors can’t accurately be represented in one color mode or the other. For example, bright neon colors are impossible to print using traditional CMYK inks but are easy to display on a monitor using RGB.

So, before you start designing anything, it’s important to consider which color mode best suits your project and workflow. This will lead to accurate colors and the best results for the finished product.

What is CMYK?

Photo via Envato Elements

CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black colors. These are the four colors of ink that are used in conventional printing.

The “K” in CMYK represents black because, in the world of printing, black is the “key” color. That means it’s the color used to set the tone of a design, and all other ink colors are added on top of it. The other three colors — cyan, magenta, and yellow — are known as secondary or subtractive colors.

It’s also said that “K” is used for black because using “B” would cause confusion, with people thinking it stands for “blue”.

How CMYK Works

In the world of printing, colors are created by combining inks of various colors and densities on top of white paper. The more ink used, the darker the final color will be. This is the subtractive color model.

If your design goes to a commercial printer to print using CMYK inks, your design is first separated into its component colors by a process called color separation. Once that’s done, each color is printed one at a time using a different printing plate.

Spot colors, and special inks, like metallics, are printed separately on a different plate.

The Best File Formats for CMYK

Several different file formats work well with the CMYK color mode. Always check with your printer to see which format they require. Some of the best file formats for working in the CMYK color space include:

  • EPS: (Encapsulated PostScript) This vector file format is supported by most design and page layout programs. It includes text and images, making it ideal for complex designs.
  • PDF: (Portable Document Format): This versatile file format can be used for both vector and raster images. PDFs are often used for print-ready files because they preserve all the color and formatting information in the document.
  • AI: (Adobe Illustrator) This is the proprietary file format of Adobe Illustrator, a vector-based design program commonly used for print design. AI files are fully editable, which means they can be easily adjusted if your printer needs to make a change or edit colors.
  • CDR: (CorelDRAW) This is the proprietary file format of CorelDRAW, a vector graphic editor that can be used to create designs for both print and the web.

What is RGB?

RGB
Photo via Envato Elements

RGB stands for Red, Green, and Blue. These are the three colors of light used for digital images displayed on digital screens like monitors, TVs, phones, and other electronic devices. It is an additive color model, rather than a subtractive model like CMYK.

How RGB Works

All the colors we see on our screens are made by combining red, green, and blue light. By varying the intensity of each color, we can create millions of different vivid colors.

To display an image on a screen using RGB, each pixel comprises three sub-pixels that are red, green, and blue. The intensity of each color is represented by a number from 0 to 255. For example, if all the sub-pixels are turned off, the pixel will be black, and the color is represented by the RGB value 0,0,0. If all the sub-pixels are turned in, the pixel will be white, represented by 255,255,255.

The Best File Formats for RGB

Several different file types work well with the RGB color mode. The best formats for RGB digital files include:

  • PNG: (Portable Network Graphics) This is a lossless file format often used for web images and digital graphics. Lossless means that no data is lost when the file is compressed, making it ideal for images that need to be high quality with smaller file sizes.
  • JPG: (Joint Photographic Experts Group) This file format is commonly used for photographic images.
  • GIF: (Graphics Interchange Format) This file format is often used for animated images on the web.
  • SVG: (Scalable Vector Graphics) This vector file format is often used for images on the web. SVG files can be scaled to any size without losing quality, making them ideal for responsive designs.
  • PSD: (Photoshop Document) This standard file format for images created in Adobe Photoshop. PSD files are fully editable, meaning they can be easily edited if you need to make changes.

When to Use Each Color Mode

So when should you use CMYK, and when should you use RGB?

As a general rule, you should use CMYK for print designs and RGB for digital designs. That’s because CMYK is designed for printing, and RGB is designed for displays. 

For example, use RGB when designing:

  • website graphics
  • social media graphics
  • email newsletters
  • online ads
  • profile photos
  • infographics
  • app design
  • and anything that will be displayed on a screen

And use CMYK when designing:

  • business cards
  • posters
  • billboards
  • signs
  • menus
  • t-shirt designs
  • brochures
  • product packaging
  • promotional materials
  • and any art file that will be printed

The Differences Between CMYK and RGB

Now that we know a little bit about how each color mode works, let’s take a look at some of the main differences between RGB and CMYK.

1. The Color Gamut

One of the biggest differences between CMYK and RGB is the number of colors each color mode can display or the color gamut.

CMYK can produce a limited number of colors because it uses a small set of inks (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black). To create different colors, these inks are combined in different proportions.

On the other hand, RGB can produce wider ranges of color — a practically unlimited number of colors because it uses light instead of ink. By varying the intensity of red, green, and blue light, we can create millions of colors.

2. The Default Color Mode

The default color mode is the color mode that’s used when you first open a design program like Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator.

For most design programs, the default color mode is RGB. That means when you open a new document, it will be in RGB color mode by default. 

However, some programs use CMYK as the default color mode. For example, QuarkXPress and CorelDRAW use CMYK as the default color mode.

3. The Printing Process

The main reason CMYK exists is because of the printing process. As we mentioned, CMYK is the color mode used for printing — cyan, magenta, yellow, and black ink are used to create the different colors.

The order in which the colors are printed is also important. Cyan is always printed first, followed by magenta, yellow, and black. This printing order is known as the “Four-Color Process.”

4. The Output Device

Another big difference between RGB and CMYK is the output device. This is the piece of equipment used to display or print your design.

As you know, the output device for CMYK is printed products, while the output device for RGB is displays. 

However, there are some extremely rare exceptions.

5. Brighter Colors

Designs in RGB mode tend to have brilliant colors. That’s because RGB uses light to create color, and light is naturally more vibrant than ink. That’s also because of the nature of the output device — digital devices have backlit screens, making the colors appear more vibrant than printed colors.

Because CMYK color modes use inks instead of light, the colors tend to be slightly muted by comparison. That’s not necessarily bad — some of the most beautiful designs have muted tones.

How to Set the Color Mode in Photoshop

Setting the Color Mode in Photoshop

It’s very easy to change the color mode in Adobe Photoshop. Just follow these simple steps:

  1. Open your image in Photoshop.
  2. Click on “Image” in the menu bar at the top of the screen.
  3. Hover over “Mode.”
  4. Click on the color mode you want to use (RGB or CMYK).

How to Set the Color Mode in Illustrator

How to Set the Color Mode in Illustrator

It’s just as easy to set the color mode in Adobe Illustrator. Just follow these simple steps:

  1. Open your image in Illustrator.
  2. Click on “File” in the menu bar at the top of the screen.
  3. Hover over “Document Color Mode.”
  4. Click on the color mode you want to use (RGB or CMYK). 

How to Convert from RGB to CMYK (and Vice Versa)

It’s very easy to convert between RGB mode and CMYK in Photoshop and Illustrator. Just follow the steps we outlined above for each program. (And the process is similar in other design software, too).

Keep in mind that converting between color modes can sometimes result in a loss of color data and color shifts. That’s because not all colors can be accurately represented in both RGB and CMYK.

So, if you’re working on a design for print, it’s best to start in CMYK from the beginning. That way, you can be sure that all the colors in your design will be accurately represented in the final print.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a color gamut?

The color gamut is the range of colors that a color mode can display. The RGB color gamut is much larger than that of CMYK.

What is HSB?

HSB is a color mode that stands for Hue, Saturation, and Brightness. It’s similar to the RGB color space because it uses light to create different colors.

Can I print RGB images?

Yes, you can print RGB images. However, the colors in your image will be converted to CMYK before they’re printed. So, there’s a chance that some of the colors in your image will be slightly different in the final print.

Should I convert an RGB image to CMYK before printing?

It’s usually a good idea to convert an RGB image to CMYK before printing. That way, you can be sure that all of the colors in your image will be accurately represented in the final print. 

However, there’s always a chance that some colors will be slightly different after the conversion. So, if you’re working on a very color-sensitive design, it’s best to start in CMYK from the beginning for ideal color accuracy and consistent colors.

How do you view CMYK colors on a monitor?

CMYK colors can’t be accurately represented on a monitor. That’s because monitors use RGB to create colors. So, when you’re working in CMYK, you won’t be able to see exactly what your design will look like when it’s printed.

However, you can get a pretty good idea by converting your CMYK colors to RGB. Just keep in mind that the colors will look slightly different when they’re printed.

The Bottom Line

As you can see, there are some big differences between CMYK and RGB. In a nutshell, CMYK is used for printing, and RGB is used for screen displays. That’s because CMYK uses inks while RGB uses light. But their differences go much deeper than that.

When working on a design, choosing the right color mode from the beginning of the design process is important. That way, you can be sure that all the colors in your design will be accurately represented in the final product.

Now that you know all about CMYK vs. RGB and what makes each of them unique, you have the tools to choose the right color mode for your next graphic design project.