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CMYK vs RGB Color

Posted on: February 13th, 2013 by No Comments

If you weren’t born in the year 2000 or later and acronym-overloads tend to make your head spin, you may be interested in a breakdown of two popular abbreviated terms in the printing world: CMYK and RGB.

Both CMYK and RGB are acronyms that stand for modes of color use in design and in printing. CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black (the people who came up with the acronym used “K” instead of “B” for black to avoid confusion with the “B” for blue in RGB), whereas RGB represents Red, Green, and Blue.


Your computer displays, or emits, light in red, green, and blue colors. This may seem simplistic, but these three hues alone can be blended to create all the colors that are visible to humans. That said, some monitors are more capable than others at successfully displaying a robust range of colors. And though they’re getting better all the time, no computer monitors do a perfect job displaying all the colors we’re capable of perceiving.

CMYK, on the other hand, is the set of colors that printers draw from when they print your RGB designs. When CMYK inks are printed onto paper, they allow for the absorption and reflection of lights of varying wavelengths, resulting in the colors you eventually see displayed on the page.

So you got that right: Images on your computer, including your graphic designs for printed materials like postcards and business cards, are displayed on your computer monitor in RGB, or red, yellow, and blue color (even if your design program shows you a CMYK spectrum when you select or adjust colors), while those same images will inevitably be printed in CMYK color inks.

Example of Art Saved In RGB


Example of Art Saved In CMYK


As you may have guessed, this discrepancy between the color system you use to design your artwork, and the color system that is used to print that same artwork, can result in some in-congruence in how your design appears on your monitor and in your finished printed works.
So how can you ensure that you don’t get back an unwelcome surprise when you send your digital design files to your printer of choice? You do have a few options that can help you avoid major mismatches between what you saw on your screen and what you see in the box you get back from the printer.

Maybe the best decision you can make when sending your files in for CMYK printing is to convert your RGB designs to CMYK ones and make adjustments before you send. InDesign, Illustrator, and Photoshop all make it relatively easy to do this.
In Photoshop, for example, you can just go to the “Edit” menu, select “Color Setting,” and then check out the dropdown menu under “Settings.” There you will find a number of different presets that should suit your printing needs, whatever they may be. Once you’ve adjusted these settings, open the RGB image you would like to convert. If you get an alert about an embedded profile mismatch, select the “use the embedded profile” option.

To convert to CMYK mode, select “Image,” then “Mode,” then “CMYK Color.” The colors in your image may change quite a bit, but don’t fret. Now is your chance to fine tune your image and to brighten any colors that became dulled in the conversion process. Photoshop’s “Replace Color” tool can be a big help in this process.

But if this seems a bit overwhelming, just shoot your printer of choice a quick email or a call expressing your concern. Your printer may have an easier solution to your RGB-CMYK conversion problem, saving you hassle and time.

Here is helpful guide created by  Evan Brown describing the difference between print vs web design.

A guide describing the difference between cmyk and rgb color