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RGB vs. CMYK: Deciphering Colour Modes for Print and Digital Design

Jun 11th, 2018

Colour is one of the most important aspects of a design. Artists will sometimes spend hours toggling between two similar shades, trying to decide which best evokes the feel of their piece. The same is true of graphic design. It’s essential that you pick the right colour schemes to get your ideas across. But how can you choose the right colours when RGB colour picking and CMYK ink profiles seem so different?

RGB vs. CMYK: Deciphering Colour Modes For Print And Digital Design

Confusion regarding CMYK and RGB colour modes is common. For designers and artists, the differentiation of the profiles is essential. If you use the wrong mode for your design, you could severely affect the message and tones that your document conveys. Fortunately, it’s fairly easy to learn the differences between the two, and from there to understand when you should use each colour profile.

What is RGB?

RGB stands for Red, Green, and Blue. This is a colour wheel that combines red, green, and blue hues to create multiple variations and blends of these colours. It’s very important to note that this mode of colour only exists in screen displays; it cannot translate to printing. Therefore, it should only be used in designs that are meant to be viewed on screens only. If the design is meant to be printed, don’t use RGB colour profiles.

RGB has a presence across all electronic models and systems. That said, the elements of the colours vary depending on the model and type of system you’re using. Mac computers display colours slightly differently from Dell ones, for example. In the same vein, smartphones might display colours differently from a laptop computer.

RGB differs from the CMYK ink a crucial way: It doesn’t use ink at all when it renders colours. Instead, colours are produced through the blending of light through the use of digital additive processes. Mixing dyes and paints, on the other hand, is considered a subtractive process.

When all of the primaries in the RGB wheel are brought to full intensity, the colours combine to create white. Meanwhile, colour absences produce black. This is the opposite of dye mixing, in which the mixing of multiple different dyes produces black, and the subtraction of dyes produces lighter colours and white.

RGB has a larger array of colours

RGB produces a larger array of colours than any artist could use in an entire lifetime. The range of colours is far wider than the capabilities of CMYK. It’s impossible for RGB colours to be translated to CMYK, meaning that designs created with RGB colours will never print the way they look on the screen. The system will convert the colour scheme to an equivalent of CMYK, but that equivalent will never capture the same vibrancy as the RGB colours.

Don’t be fooled by the print preview, either. The preview won’t accurately reflect the way the colours will print. You may view the preview and believe that your design won’t lose any integrity when you print; you’d be wrong.

When RGB Should Be Used

Use RGB when you’re designing the following things:

  • Online advertisements
  • Web pages
  • Social media layouts
  • Other digitally viewed designs

CMYK should only be used for media that you intend to print. If you try to design an online-only document with CMYK, you’ll be severely limited by the smaller colour range.

What is CMYK?

CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key (otherwise known as Black). These colours combine on paper to produce a wider range of hues than the flat use of primary colours could. The four-colour process is ideal because it will work for any printer type. If you zoom in on a printed image, you’ll be able to see the dots of four different colours which layer atop each other to create gradations and hues. Printing is discussed in dots per inch. All printers use CMYK to print, but the end result might be slightly different depending on the model and the style of printer.

As previously mentioned, RGB profiles use additive colour processes; all primary colours combine together to form white. Conversely, CMYK uses subtractive colour processes; all primary colours, when blended, will create a huge of black or almost-black. It’s similar to the process that occurs when dyes and paints are mixed. The process works because layers of ink subtract from the paper’s overall whiteness, ending in a space that doesn’t have any white left.

When you work in CMYK mode, the sliders will be different from the RGB sliders. While zero intensity produces black in RGB, it produces white in CMYK. The inverse is true as well; full intensity produces white in RGB and black in CMYK.

Cyan and magenta combine to create a rich blue, magenta and yellow combine to create red, and cyan and yellow combine to produce green. These colours aren’t used as the primary colours because they resemble mud when mixed together. CMYK uses the purest forms of primary colours to provide the widest range of hues possible.

Primaries in CMYK cannot create a true black. When they’re mixed together, they’ll create a hue that’s almost black, but it won’t quite fit the definition. This is where Key is used. This black ink is used to darken colours or to provide black where necessary since this is easier than attempting to futilely mix all of the primaries into an almost-black shade.

When CMYK Should Be Used

Any design that you intend to print should use CMYK colouring. This will more accurately reflect the result you’ll get from your printer. RGB colours cannot translate properly to printers, and you’ll receive discoloured printouts if you attempt to print RGB schematics.

Printing Solutions

Club Ink offers different printing solutions for large format designs. We can print the following types of media:

We also provide project consultation and one-of-a-kind prints. An express service is available should you require a quick turnaround for your project. To find out more about our services and printing solutions, call us today 416-694-1996 or contact us here.

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