What is the difference between RGB and CMYK?

What does RGB / CMYK stand for anyway?

RGB – Red Green and Blue (The color model that monitors use)
CMYK – Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black (Used for high quality commercial printing in large quantities)

What’s the difference?

It is not uncommon to be overwhelmed by all the acronyms flying around these days, RBG, CMYK, PDF, Jpeg, Gif, etc. You might have heard about RGB and CMYK somewhere, but you are not too sure what the difference is and why such a fuss is made over having the correct colour format. The very basics of it all is that RGB is a digital colour where you can use those bright luminescent colours like in a website, on the TV or even on your cellphone. CMYK is used for most printing and cannot use bright colours. This is because RGB has a larger colour range in comparison to CMYK. That is why you can view CMYK on screen, but you cannot print RGB commercially. RGB has color codes that range from 0 to 255 each, for example, RGB (123,188,255). CMYK work on values out of 100, for example CMYK(0,100,32,68).

Digital printing is done on a desktop printer like you have at home (sometimes they are a little larger) and is the better solution for smaller quantities. This would be perfect for small print runs of 50 A4 brochures or less. Commercial printing is done on a big printer that probably wouldn’t fit in your garage. This is the reason why only printing companies supply CMYK printing and not the smaller digital printing companies. CMYK works out cheaper per unit the more you print whereas digital printing has a set price per unit no matter how much you order.

Why does the CMYK print so dull compared to the RGB colors on my monitor?

Sometimes the conversion from RGB to CMYK works without any problems and a printout will look exactly to what shows up on the screen. In other cases, there will be noticeable differences between the shades of colour. The key to avoiding this problem is to convert all colours to CMYK format during the layout design phase. You might also find that your monitor has higher contrast or saturation settings which would make it look different from what a designer might see.

RGB has a greater range of colours than CMYK and can produce colours that are more vivid and vibrant. These colours are beyond the range that CMYK can reproduce and will come out darker and duller in print than what is seen on the monitor or display. Because the RGB colour mode has the full range of colours, documents shown in CMYK mode will always show up precisely on-screen. RGB colours, however, will not necessarily appear in print as they do on-screen. To accurately print the document or image, it must be converted from its original RGB format to CMYK.

I want to print in large quantities, but I also want the bright colours

This is where you make use of a pantone colour. Pantones are a completely different ballgame altogether, but using them ensures that your colour will ALWAYS come out the same. They can be cheap to print when few colors are used, but will exceed CMYK printing costs when reaching 4 colors and up.

How do I know if my design is RGB or CMYK?

If you get your brochure, business card, flyer, poster, etc designed professionally, your designer will make sure that your design is in the correct colour format for its intended purpose. For instance, you may want to use the flyer design to send via email to your existing clients as well as getting them printed to reach new potential clients. This option is always advised to avoid future unforeseen issues. Keep in mind that professional designers know what they are doing and are good at what they do. They keep up to date with the trends and they know all the “ins & outs” of design, colour modes and getting things done right the first time.

Of course not all of us can afford to get a professional designer to do our branding and advertising so if you are on a tight budget or think the design process will be easier by just doing it yourself and cutting out the ‘middle man’ then you need to be careful what you design in. Most amateur designers will use Microsoft Office (Word, Publisher, Power Point or Excel) to design in. It’s already installed on their computer so why not? MS Office is not a design suite so it does not offer the ability to design in any other colour modes other than RGB. So they will design their flyer or business card using this software and they will end up extremely disappointed and confused when all the vibrant, light colours have become dark and lifeless.

The best option is to choose a design company to create professional designs that will print accurately. You will have a better, more creative design, the information architecture of your design will flow properly, you will not have to license professional design packages, you will save time and your prints will come out properly.