RGB and CMYK Color Modes in Graphic Design

diagram showing color mixing of cmyk and rgb color modes
Image source: TrillionCreative

As a graphic designer it’s important to know your tools before you use them.

You might’ve noticed when you sometimes preview your design on different mediums the colors look a bit off. Knowing the RGB and CMYK color modes will help you leverage them and use them correctly for your projects.

In this article, we are going to be discussing the RGB and CMYK color modes, when to use them and the difference between them.

What is RGB

RGB is a color mode that combines the colors Red, Green, and Blue together to create color pigments. RGB colors are made through a process called additive mixing because you are mixing varying amounts of red green and blue to get the color you want.

In RGB, the base color starts off with pure black and red green and blue layers are added on top of it to create a pigment. When these 3 are mixed together in equal amount or if you turn them all up to 100% it will give you the color white.

As a graphic designer, you have the power to experiment with these values to create the colors that you want. Designers do this through adjusting the saturation, vibrancy, contrast and color values of the design.

When you should use RGB

The RGB color mode is used for digital formats. Digital formats include things like television, web and devices. The screen you are reading this from is also made with red, green, and blue colors.

Here are some popular formats in which you should consider using RGB:

  • web & app design
    • icons
    • buttons
    • graphics
  • branding
    • online logos
    • online ads
  • social media
    • images for posts
    • profile pictures
    • profile backgrounds
  • visual content
    • video
    • digital graphics
    • infographics
    • photographs for website, social media, or apps

Suitable file formats for RGB

If you want your final design to look the way you intended saving it in the right format is essential. Below are some of the best formats to save a RGB file in:

  • JPEG – JPEG is a great format especially if you’re designing for the web. Jpeg allows you greater control over the file size and quality and are readable.
  • PNG – PNG is a common file type amongst designers as it supports transparency. It is the preferred file type for graphics as it preserves the colors and is high-quality. The main downside may be the bigger file size.
  • PSD – PSD is the standard file type for Adobe Photoshop documents. PSDs are editable files with layers included. 
  • GIF – If you are working on motion graphics such as a moving object or animated logo GIF is the ideal file type. GIF is the only file format that can support RGB animation.

What is CMYK

CMYK is a color mode that combines the colors Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Key (Black) together to make color pigments. The CMYK model uses subtractive colors. This means that the base color is white and as more colors are added it gets darker until it turns black. 

When these CMYK values are mixed together in equal amount or if you turn them all up to 100% it will give you the color black.

If you’ve had some experience with Illustrator, you will note there are 2 options regarding black in its preferences.

‘True Black’ and ‘100% Black.’ CMYK is used as the standardized press format and due to impurities in the ink true black is rarely possible to recreate. Because of this CMYK cannot produce a true black rather a dark gray color.

When you should use CMYK

You should use CMYK for projects made for printing. Even though many modern printers operate on a RIP format which can automatically convert RGB to CMYK there are also printers that print in only CMYK.

  • Branding
    • business cards
    • stationary
    • stickers
    • signs & storefronts
  • Advertising
    • billboards
    • posters
    • flyers
    • vehicle wraps
    • brochures
  • Merchandise
    • t-shirts, hats and other branded clothing
    • promotional material (pens, mugs, etc.)
  • Essential materials
    • product packaging
    • restaurant menus

Suitable file formats for CMYK

Here are the correct formats for saving your file in CMYK:

  • PDFs – PDFs are ideal for CMYK printing. Illustrator and other design programs allow you multiple options to guarantee a high-quality print. If you are working on illustrator the best format to save in is a Press Quality PDF.
  • AI – AI is Adobe Illustrator’s standard file format. It is the editable illustrator file which is compatible only with illustrator.
  • EPS – EPS is a graphics vector file format and is compatible with most vector-based programs. It has a small file size and preserves quality for higher resolutions.

If you are in direct contact with the printer it is best to ask them which format they require.

How to Convert RGB to CMYK

It may be that you have already designed your project and are now realizing you were on the wrong color mode. If you made a document for print in RGB mode then depending on your design software you can switch to CMYK.

Keep in mind that the colors would look different due to the different nature of the color modes.

To change the color mode in:

  • Photoshop – Go to Edit > Convert to Profile. In this dialogue box under “Destination Space” choose your new format.
  • Illustrator – Go to Edit > Edit Colors and click on the color mode you desire.
  • InDesign – Go to File > Adobe PDF Presets > [Press Quality] and select a save destination. In the Export Adobe PDF popup box, select Output on the left side and use the Destination dropdown menu in the Color section to choose your desired color mode.

Importance of Knowing This Difference

It is highly important you know the difference between these color modes.

By not understanding the difference between the two you’re design is not going to come out the way you intend. The colors would look off and some printers might not be able to print your document. 

It is best to use the RGB format for digital designs on the web and CMYK for documents to be printed.

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