RGB vs CMYK: What’s the Difference?

While RGB is used for screens, CMYK is strictly for prints. Both RGB and CMYK have their set of advantages and limitations.

by Mike Jansen

Colors add depth and life to almost any visual art. From movies to painting to graphic designs, the right mix of colors can evoke varied emotions. In the world of graphic design, having a thorough understanding of the two color models, namely RGB and CMYK, holds the key to your success. Whether you are a graphic designer or a business owner looking for creative services, knowing the two color models can yield better results.

So, what is the real difference between RGB and CMYK?

Well, both are color models, which use different modes of blending colors. While RGB is best for digital work, CMYK is mainly used for printing. But, that is not the only difference; the two color models evolved out of different mechanisms. As a graphic designer, it will pay you well to understand the specifics of both these models.

Here is a great explainer video on “RGB vs CMYK.”

What is RGB?

RGB stands for red, green, and blue – primary colors. The RGB color model is generally designed to be seen on screens. From movies to your favorite OTT flicks to web designs, RGB is a natural choice.

When you blend RGB and vary their intensity with the help of a light source within a device, you get different colors. The process of creating different colors by varying the intensity of red, green, and blue lights is known as additive mixing.

Graphic designers can control and manipulate the colors you see on the screen by using various editing software such as Photoshop and Illustrator.

Fun fact: Pure white light is created when red, green, and blue lights are blended at equal intensity.

How are RGB colors formed?

The screen you are reading this article on is one of the finest examples of human achievement. Complex technology has enabled us to perform almost everything with ease. Your mobile, laptop, or desktop screen is made of tiny little dots known as pixels. What you are seeing right now is the colors of the pixel manipulating light to form the images or texts you are reading.

Each pixel on your screen is further divided into three subpixels: red, green, and blue.

RGB vs CMYK: What’s the Difference?

The color a pixel displays depends on how the RGB subpixels are manipulated. All three colors have a value between 0 – 255, meaning each color has 256 levels. Simply put, the RGB color space has 16, 777, 216 colors.

The truth is that the human eye cannot discern so many colors. There is also no clarity on how many colors humans can perceive. However, according to the BBC, humans can discern about a million colors.

According to the article, there are “three types of cone cells” in the human eye. Each cone cell can identify almost 100 color shades, which brings the total to a million.

The RGB model combines different intensities of red, green, and blue light to create all the colors we see. Let us understand this by example:

When you mix all three subpixels at maximum intensity, the result is white.

R: 255G: 255B: 255

Again, when you use the minimum value, the color you get is black.

R: 0G: 0B: 0

You get Cyan when you activate R and B to full intensity and leave the G to 0.

R: 255G: 0B: 255

When do you use RGB?

RGB is used mainly for designs that are viewed on a screen, such as laptops, mobiles, tablets, and desktops. However, these are not the only screens that use the RGB color model. Camera displays, cinema screens, and TVs also use the RGB model.

You can use the RGB color model when working on the following projects:

Web design: Graphics are used on websites to enhance the idea, structure, and content of the page, thereby increasing the engagement of the users.

Branding: Online logos, graphics, and ads form the crux of brand identity.

Social media: Social networking platforms are rapidly turning into “the mainstream media,” which is why businesses put a lot more effort into digital marketing strategies.

Apart from the above, the RGB color model is also used for video content, thumbnails, covers, digital graphics, apps, icons, and many more.

What are the best file formats for RGB?

While there are plenty of file formats that support the RGB color model, the following are the best formats:

JPEG: The best part about a JPEG file is that it is readable almost everywhere. JPEGs are the best match for the RGB color model because the file format provides a good balance between quality and size.

PNG: This is a file format which is favored by graphic designers. Images that use the PNG file type can easily be superimposed over other images. You can use the format when designing icons and banners.

PSD:  If all your team members are working with Adobe Photoshop, then PSD is the best source file for RGB documents.

What is CMYK?

 CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key/Black.  CMYK is the preferred color model for printing. But, have you wondered why the word “Key” is used as opposed to using “Black”? The answer is simple: the word “Key” in CMYK is derived from the key plate where black is the main color.

In the RGB color model, colored lights are added to create various shades and depth, but in the CMYK format, colors are added to reduce the initial brightness of the hues to create the desired color, which is why the model is known as subtractive mixing.

The science behind CMYK

A printed image is made of thousands of tiny dots of ink, which have the CMYK DNA imprinted on them. In simpler words, the dots are cyan, magenta, yellow, or black.

In the CMYK color model, all colors start as blank white, then as layers of colors are added, the ink reduces the earlier brightness to achieve the desired pigment. This subtractive model of printing has been in use since as early as the 1850s.

Let us understand how colors are formed in the CMYK with examples.

When you overlap a yellow dot with magenta, you get a bright red color. In other words, you actually subtract the yellow from magenta. Similarly, subtracting yellow from cyan would give you green.

When you combine cyan, magenta, and yellow, you get the dark brown color, which is why a fourth color—black— was added to remove light and create colors to the purest extent possible.

Good read: Everything you need to know about brand guidelines

When to use CMYK?

Turn to CMYK if your project requires it to be printed physically. The CMYK color model is best suited for designs that are recreated through ink or paint. You can use the CMYK color model when working on the following projects:

What are the best file formats for CMYK?

There are various file formats that best suit the CMYK color model. However, it is always wise to ask the printer to find out their preferred file type. The following are some widely used file types:

  • AI is the standard file format for CMYK if everyone within your organization is using Adobe Illustrator.
  • EPS is a great substitute for AI because it is compatible with vector programs.
  • PDFs are perfect for CMYK because they go well with most programs.

Why the RGB and CMYK difference is important in graphic design

Understanding the fundamental difference between RGB and CMYK will help you produce the same colors as your digital mockup. In order to avoid printing errors, it is best to study both color models. Both the color models have their set of advantages and limitations. This article touches upon the differences and the proper usage of both color models.

The result will greatly vary from what you initially designed digitally using the RGB color model if you print physical things, such as brochures, posters, or branded merchandise: this can be an extremely time-consuming and costly issue to fix.

As a graphic designer, you should understand the key differences and gather the knowledge of how to correctly use each format.

The following are the key differences discussed extensively above:

RGB

  • This is an additive color model.
  • White is the combination of primary colors.
  • Black is the absence of light.
  • It is pixel-based; hence, used for screens only.

CMYK

  • This is a subtractive color model.
  • White is used for the print background.
  • Black is used as the amalgamation of all the colors.
  • It uses CMYK dots to create color pigments..

How to convert between RGB and CMYK?

Let me start this section by stating that it is always advisable to begin your project using the correct format. However, you can still convert the format if you have to. While it is true that you can change the format at any given stage during your project, the result of such changes may make the colors look different.

Pro tip: Always start your project using the correct format.

You can easily convert between RGB and CMYK using various editing software. Here is how it is done:

Adobe Photoshop

  • Navigate to Edit > Convert to Profile; this will open a dialogue box.
  • Click on  Destination Space.
  • Select the desired color mode from the drop-down menu.

Adobe Illustrator

One of the best vector-based editing software, Adobe Illustrator, allows users to convert between RGB and CMYK easily.

  • Select all objects in your document.
  • Navigate to Edit > Edit Colors.
  • Select the desired color model.

Why does color mode matter?

Color modes are extremely important to understand because comprehending their limitations are crucial for you as a designer. RGB has a greater range of hues than CMYK, which is why printed materials may appear duller than how they appear on the screen.

When you begin a project using the CMYK format, you see the colors the way they will appear after printing.

RGB vs CMYK: What’s the Difference?

Conclusion

The world of colors is truly fascinating. They are wondrous and evoke varied feelings and emotions within the human mind. Be it the real world or digital, life without colors is unimaginable. Both RGB and CMYK color models have their uniqueness and advantages. A graphic designer needs both RGB and CMYK color models to create logos, websites, images, and prints.

Businesses accross the world have consulted DesignBro to build their brand with logo, website, packaging design and much more.

We can help you too!

RGB vs CMYK: What’s the Difference?
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