What is the difference between RGB and CMYK?

Before you get into the design world, the difference between RGB or CMYK doesn’t matter a great deal. You’re not looking to produce items of professional quality, so the protocol you choose is mostly irrelevant.

However, once you transition into professional work, the issue of colour starts to matter a lot. Both CMYK and RGB have particular strengths and weaknesses and different applications. And which you choose can have an impact on the consistency of your brand and the quality of work you do for clients.

What Does RGB Mean?

RBG is a colour-mixing method used whenever you want to display colours in digital formats.

You should use RGB colour schemes when you intend the end product of your design work to be digital. RGB is best for any text or images you want to display on TV, computer screens, smartphones, cameras or tablets. Thus, designers use the scheme for projects intended for online branding, social media, websites, infographics or video content.

RGB works best in specific formats. Top choices include:

  • JPEGS. This format is an excellent compromise between file size and quality.
  • GIFs. GIFs are motion picture files and can be useful when your RGB work concerns animated elements, such as moving logos.
  • PNGs. This file type supports transparency, making it ideal for when you want to overlay one object on another. Designers often use PNG files for website buttons or banners they want to lay on top of existing elements.
  • PSD. PSD files are the standard format for RGB documents for those using Adobe.

When Should You Use CMYK?

By contrast, you should use CMYK when you intend your work to be printed on a medium, such as paper or cardboard. Using the CMYK format will allow you to recreate your digital intentions in a physical form more accurately.

Typically, designers use CMYK for things like business cards, stickers, flyers, posters, leaflets, posters and merch. They also use it for product packaging (which is why you often see cyan, magenta and yellow squares on the underside of labels.

As with RGB, designers typically choose a set of standard formats for CMYK work.

  • AI. AI is the primary source file for CMYK images on Adobe Illustrator.
  • EPS. EPS is an alternative that offers compatibility with vector programs.
  • PDFs. PDFs support CMYK prints. They are useful because they are compatible with a wide variety of applications, including most word-processing tools.

What’s The Difference Between The RGB And CMYK Color Space?

Printing and display colour production rely on fundamentally different paradigms. For that reason, it is often impossible for one to accurately reflect the other.

As discussed, displaying colours on a screen relies on layering them. So, when you add red, green and blue, together, you create white light. Or when you add red and green, you get yellow. By contrast, when you add all the colours together under the CMYK scheme, you create black.

The challenge for modern designers, therefore, is to leverage technology to convert one scheme into another accurately. If you want to display CMYK on computer screens, they have no choice but to express it using RGB. Likewise, when you print something designed in the RBG space, printers must use the CMYK scheme.

Modern software is exceptionally adept at converting from one scheme to another. The goal is to ensure visual consistency across both. However, there may be variation, primarily related to the quality of the hardware. For instance, if you purchase a monitor that claims to cover 99 per cent of the Adobe RGB space, you will likely get more accurate prints compared to say a cheap TN panel that only covers 80 per cent. Similarly, the higher the quality of your printer, the more closely physical colours will reflect those displayed on the screen.

You may sometimes notice colour shifts moving from RGB to CMYK. If you do, then you can recalibrate your screen and make trial-and-error adjustments to your print, such as lightening. Remember, when printing on paper pigments may “fatten” as the ink seeps through the material. Always use printer paper for the most accurate results.