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January 31, 2023
August 18, 2023

RGB vs CMYK: Everything You Need to Know

Mrignayni Pandey

RGB vs CMYK: Everything You Need to Know

January 30, 2023
August 18, 2023
Mrignayni Pandey


RGB and CMYK are the two most widely used color spaces or modes in graphic design. While they both have advantages, they are each more suited for particular projects than the other. 

To determine which is ideal for your design job, it's critical to understand the CMYK and RGB color spaces. This article will explain these color modes, how they operate, the difference between RGB and CMYK, the significance of each color mode, and when to utilize each.

But first, let’s start with understanding what additive and subtractive color systems are. 

What are additive and subtractive color systems?

Understanding the distinction between additive and subtractive color spaces is the first step in understanding RGB and CMYK.

RGB is an additive color space; you get white when the colors are added together. 

CMYK is present in the subtractive color space; white is simply the absence of other colors. 

Digital displays use additive colors. They use pixels with variable intensities of red, green, and blue to produce nearly 16 million different colors.

In contrast, printed material employs subtractive hues. The printers combine dots of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black to print over 16,000 colors. 

Image source: Dribble

What is RGB color space?

RGB stands for Red, Green, and Blue. It’s an additive color system and is based on the way human vision works. 

How does RGB work?

Our eyes contain cone photoreceptors for red, green, and blue light waves. The brain uses the information from these receptors into the colors we see. 

Therefore, this color system is created with light — the more light you add, the lighter the color becomes. 

A mathematical scientist, James Clerk Maxwell, employed RGB color for the first time in 1861 when attempting to develop color photos. When white light was shone through all three of the red, green, and blue images he had taken of the same object, it produced a full-color image.

When to use RGB?

Use the RGB color mode if your design project's final form is going to be viewed on a digital screen like a computer, a phone, a tablet, a TV, a camera, etc. This includes:

  • Icons
  • Logos (for use in website and app design)
  • Buttons
  • UI elements
  • Banner ads
  • Blog and social media images
  • Profile images and covers
  • Infographics
  • Digital photos
  • Video content

What are the best file formats for RGB?

If everyone in the team uses Adobe Photoshop, PSD is the accepted source file for RGB documents. But here are other file formats you can use for RGB:

Image source: 99Designs

  • JPEG: Because they strike a good balance between file size and quality and because they can be seen practically everywhere, JPEGs are perfect for RGB data.
  • PNG: For graphics that need to be superimposed over others, PNGs work better because they support transparency. So, this file format is great for interface components like buttons, icons, or banners.
  • GIFs: Since GIFs can capture motion, they're the best option if you want to include an animated element, such as a logo that moves or an icon that bounces.

When it comes to RGB, there are also a few file formats you should avoid, like TIFF, EPS, PDF, and BMP. 

These formats can be excessively huge in terms of data and incompatible with most applications.

What is CMYK color space?

While subtractive color systems like CMYK are common in printed materials, additive color systems are the norm in digital imaging.

Since digital displays can produce many more colors than printed inks or dyes, this can impact on how accurately colors are reproduced.

In most color print projects, you'll start with a white backdrop and block out sections of it using cyan, magenta, yellow, and black inks to achieve different colors. The term "subtractive" thus refers to the removal of light from the original surface.

Traditionally, the Red, Yellow, and Blue (RYB) model of color pigment mixing was the foundation for the first subtractive color scheme. 

When combined, this color model can produce a wide range of additional hues, but the CMY (Cyan, commonly known as "process blue," Magenta, sometimes known as "process red," and Yellow) model is even more flexible. Thousands of different hues can be made by adding black (or Key) to the mixture.

Although the Eagle Printing Ink Company adopted this CMYK color model for commercial printing for the first time in 1906, it wasn't until the middle of the 1950s that it started to be used as the norm for 4-color printing.

When to use CMYK?

You can use CMYK for any project design that will be printed out and not just viewed on a screen. This includes:

  • Brochures
  • Business cards
  • Flyers
  • Billboards
  • Signs and posters
  • Magazines
  • Book covers
  • Stationary
  • Promotional items
  • Product packaging
  • Invitations
  • Menus

The colors of the final output will match the planned colors as nearly as possible when digital files in CMYK color mode are printed.

Note: When preparing digital files for printing, make sure to follow the directions given by your printer or lab to get the best results. Because of how each printer is configured differently, the specifics may differ, and your printer will be the most knowledgeable about their setup. 

What are the best file formats for CMYK?

If everyone on the team uses Adobe Illustrator, AI is the typical source file for CMYK. But other than this format, PDFs and EPS are also perfect for CMYK files as they work with most systems and are compatible with other vector software. 

All things considered, it's wise to ask your printer which file type they prefer in advance to make sure you get great results. 

Image source: 99Designs

Should I convert RGB into CMYK ?

Printers will automatically convert RGB digital files to CMYK before printing. However, this process can result in colors that are noticeably more muted than what you see on your display.

To prevent this significant variation in the outcome, ensure that the color space of your file is set to CMYK. You’ll get a much better approximation even if some colors may still not exactly match what is printed on the page from your screen.

Depending on the software you use, here are a few resources you can use to achieve this change:

RGB or CMYK: Which color space should you use?

If your design is going to be viewed on a digital display, use the RGB format. On the other hand, if your design is going to be on a printed material, you’ll be better off using the CMYK color space. 

Wrapping Up 

As a designer, you need to exercise caution while choosing color modes the same way you do for fonts, element sizes, and spacing to ensure that the colors you chose for your project don’t turn out as you had hoped. 

That’s why you need to be aware of the fundamental differences between CMYK and RGB color modes. It’ll give you more control over the entire process and help you get an idea of what your final design will look like. 

Tip: If you’re working in RGB mode and don’t know what your CMYK colors are, Artwork Flow has you covered. Its color extractor tool allows you to extract colors from your creative and helps you put together a print-ready file for prepress proofing. 

You can even compare your creatives with the PDF compare tool to check if the color modes used are uniform.

About Artwork Flow:

Artwork Flow is a workflow automation software & a brand asset management software specifically designed for design and marketing teams. 

It helps simplify your creative process by enabling you to collaborate with your team from anywhere, secure your assets, and manage your project end-to-end.

To learn more about how it can help you, check out our case studies or contact us for a free demo. 

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