RGB vs CMYK. Color Systems for Web and Print

man combining colors in rgb and cmyk

There are two primary color systems in the print and digital design industries: RGB and CMYK. Conveying the right message via your designs is crucial and possible, but only if you use the right colors.

Color has always been a significant part of everyday life from time immemorial. It is so inherently powerful that it can affect your mood or the impression you have about a particular brand.

Funny thing is, color can also shape your buying choices.

It is imperative for you to know the color system to make use of if you want your design to look according to your plan. If you know how your design will be used, it will be much easier for you to know the best system to opt for.

As I mentioned before, two primary color systems define the printing industry:

  • The RGB system
  • The CMYK system

RGB is an acronym for Red, Green, Blue.

CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key.

In this article, you will learn everything – or almost everything – you need to know about these chromatic systems and their significance in the digital and print design industries respectively.


What is RGB?

RGB denotes Red, Green, and Blue. It is used exclusively and extensively in the digital design industry since it signifies the same colors utilized in mobile device screens, TV screens, digital cameras, scanners as well as computer screens.

RGB is an additive color system, i.e., the primary colors are combined or added together in a variety of combinations to generate a much broader spectrum of colors.

These are created or produced by blending light or superimposing the red, green, and blue shafts of light.

Each of these colors will be alleged as black without any intensity, but with full intensity, each of them will appear white.

It also bears mentioning that each color will generate the hue or tone of a specific tint with different intensities.

The subsequent color will also appear relatively saturate, though it depends significantly on the difference between the least and the most intense color.


When to use RGB?

As a rule, the RGB system should only be used for digital designs, mainly when you are designing for the World Wide Web. This includes developing imagery, graphics for use on social media and websites.

It can also be used for presentations done on screen since the entire project will be viewed via a computer monitor.

If it is necessary for you to make use of the designs in print, then you have no other option than to convert it to the CMYK color system.

And with that, the question arises: what is the CMYK color system?


What is CMYK?

CMYK is an acronym for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key (Black). The “Black” which is associated with the “Key” denotes the key plate that is responsible for the addition of the contrast and detail for the final image.

The CMYK system is commonly designated as the “four-color process” since it involves the use of four distinct colors to produce different tones or hues.

The “Black” is integrated into the color system since the other ones – i.e., Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow when combined cannot produce a saturated black.

In contrast to RGB, CMYK is a subtractive color model since the printed ink minimizes the light that should naturally be reflected.

The inks used in the process subtract the brightness from a white background after the four colors are applied.

The CMYK primary colors are combined during the printing process which can occasionally bring about minor variations or inconsistencies. Therefore, you should always take a look at the printed proof of any given project before you run through with the full print run or decide to have them UV coated.


Halftoning and Screen Angle techniques, to the rescue

Halftoning, or screening is the process in which tiny dots of each CMYK primary color are printed in a pattern, so small that the human eye perceives it as a solid color. This way can be produced a full set of new colors.

Add to it the screen angle technique and CMYK becomes quite an interesting model. The main colors are basically printed at a certain angle, thus, improving the printing quality.

photograph printed in cmyk


When to Use CMYK?

It was mentioned in the previous section that the CMYK system is the recognized or recommended color model employed for any material that requires printing.

This includes items such as letterheads, business cards, advertisements or posters, brochures as well as any other business document.

Given that the CMYK model is the only one that can generate the greatest or highest accuracy when printing color photography, it should, therefore, be your prime choice for any print job that involves the use of more than four colors.

So, always use print design software such as Adobe Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator, FreeHand, PageMaker, Quark, etc. as you will be able to select the CMYK option before you get started and not get worried about anything.

But if you’re using a program that is not designed for printing such as MS Word, MS PowerPoint, MS Excel, etc. you will never have the option of converting to CMYK. Having the right software is to your advantage.

Matching the colors according to your target market is very crucial as they will be the ones to appreciate the end product fully. Therefore, the best thing is to keep them in mind right from the start.

Additionally, you should be extremely careful when it comes to using colors, especially if you are to apply them to your professional field.

Colors will have a significant impact on the overall design of your material, whether you are designing for the web or making use of the print medium.

Okay, if that is the case and printing is done using the CMYK color model, why should anyone bother to use RGB, you ask?

To be candid, although the CMYK system is used mostly for printing, it is not all that efficient for other jobs. The ability the CMYK model has is severely limited when it comes to displaying all the colors that only RGB can generate.

The CMYK can only be used for printing about 60-70% of the colors that are available in RGB. The majority of the brightest and vibrant colors cannot be reproduced using the CMYK system.



On a final note, the CMYK color system is the conventional model for standard offset printing even though the latest improvements in science and technology might give RGB a chance for being used in printing too.

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Passionate about everything that shines, settled down on UV(ultraviolet) lights. I'm motivated and with a mission to help people live a better life!

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