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Understanding the difference between RGB and CMYK colour modes is necessary for any professional embarking on printing or designing images.

It goes beyond defining the terms; it’s more about knowing when to use each colour mode. RGB color mode, for example, is best for digital designs used on websites, online advertisements, apps, etc.

Conversely, CMYK is ideal for designs used on print, e.g., business cards, fliers, books, packaging, etc. Here’s a more detailed overview of each colour mode:


What is RGB?

RGB is an acronym for Red, Green, and Blue. This colour mode uses the additive model to reproduce various colours.

Combinations of red, green, and blue colours are mixed in varying intensities to create a perfect pigment. For example, when these three colours are mixed in equal intensity, they produce pure white colour.

If you mix blue and green light, you produce cyan colour; if you mix green and red light, you get yellow. You can modify any colour to control vibrancy, saturation, and shading.

And since all this is done in digital spaces, you can experiment with different colour combinations and intensities to create the desired colour.

The RGB colour mode is displayed within a range between 0-255, meaning 256 colour combinations can be used to create a colour on the spectrum between black and white.


When to Use RGB?

This colour mode is ideal for digital designs because it produces a wider range of colours than CMYK. That’s why it’s preferred when designing apps, websites, social media, and digital image display applications like scanners and digital cameras.

RGB’s additive nature makes it unsuitable for printing, as it uses a subtractive colour model called CMYK.

Printing RGB images produces blurry images because the printer is compelled to convert the RGB colour mode to the CMYK mode.


File Formats for RGB

The quality and purpose of the image determine the RGB file format should use. The most common include:

  • PNG: This format is ideal for graphics that must be superimposed on others. It preserves the transparency and quality of the image and could result in a larger file size. That’s why PNG file formats are great for logos, photographs, graphics, and icons with transparent backgrounds.
  • JPG or JPEG: This file format is an idea for images and photos in many colours. It provides an excellent middle ground between quality and file size when compressing images
  • GIFs: This kind captures motion and is hence suitable for designing animated elements like a bouncing icon or a moving logo
  • PSD: This is the most common file format for Adobe Photoshop. It preserves all the effects, layers, and settings of the image, hence an excellent format for editing and storing original images
  • SVG: This format uses XML code to define an image’s colours, shapes, and paths. It’s ideal for scalable diagrams, graphics, and icons that must be accurately drawn in different sizes


What is CMYK?

This is a subtractive colour model used in printing. CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key or Black colours. Unlike RGB, which uses an additive model, CMYK starts blank, with each layer of ink reducing an image’s brightness.

When mixed, the colours create a black colour, which is subtracted to produce a bright result. The colour values are measured in percentages, with each colour having a value of 100%.

However, different percentages of the colours are used to create the true or rich black colour, such as C-75%, K-90 %, M-68 %, and Y-67 %. This colour is the purest black version because it absorbs the most light.


When to Use CMYK

This colour mode is ideal for printing materials like magazines, posters, brochures, promotional t-shirts, stickers, restaurant menus, etc. Printers use it to reproduce colours on paper by mixing black, cyan, yellow, and magenta inks, delivering more accurate results.

However, since the CMYK colour mode has fewer variations than RGB, designers must convert digital images from RGB to CMYK before sending them to print.

File Formats for CMYK

The file formats vary based on the project’s quality and type. They include:

  • PDF: This file format is compatible with most programs and is known for preserving a document’s graphics, fonts, colours, and layout
  • Tiff: This file format helps preserve an image’s quality and details but may also produce a large file size. It handles CMYK colours pretty well, and it can be compressed without losing data
  • AI: This format is ideal for working with Adobe Illustrator files. It allows you to edit an image while preserving its effects, settings, and layers. AI is suitable for printing graphics, icons, or logos that must be scaled without losing quality
  • EPS: This format is similar to AI, except it’s compatible with other programs (vector). You can edit or scale an image in this file format; hence, it is great for graphics, logos, and icons that need to be printed or shared from different software


Converting RGB to CMYK Color Mode

Although RGB images can be printed, they’re less likely to appear as they do on screen. That’s because the colour mode is primarily designed for screen display.

As such, a designer must convert RGB to CMYK colour modes before sending the image for print. The software adjusts the colours to ensure the image doesn’t lose its colour quality. Here’s how you do it:

Using Photoshop

  1. Click on edit> convert profile
  2. Then click on the dialogue box>Destination space
  3. Choose the desired colour mode

Using InDesign

  1. Open the File>Adobe PDF Preset
  2. Select output> color
  3. Choose the desired colour mode

Using Illustrator

  1. Open Edit>Edit Color
  2. Choose the desired color

Understand the Color Modes

Understanding how colour modes interact gives you greater control over the final colour’s appearance, allowing you to manipulate the final design as deemed fit. Working with a specific colour mode longer hones your ability to deliver a great final product. However, consider liaising with Simpaul Designs professionals if you want picture-perfect colours. Having worked on numerous design projects, we understand the nitty-gritty of using either colour mode. Thus, you can count on us to deliver the best designs on print and digital platforms.

Paul Simiyu

Founder and Team Lead of Simpaul Design, a brand strategy and design agency in Nairobi, Kenya. Here at Simpaul Design, we work with brands across various categories with a focus on connecting with consumers and building brands that people want to be a part of. We specialize in brand identity and strategy, UX/UI, and brand transformation.

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