CMYK vs RGB: How to Print the Right Colors – Awkward Styles

Carter McCue

5 mins read

, CMYK vs RGB: How to Print the Right Colors – Awkward Styles, Awkward Styles Blog

Planning to create your own designs for your print on demand business? Pretty exciting, isn’t it? But before you get too ahead of yourself, there’s one thing you need to know about: color models.

For graphic designers, one of the first things they figure out when crafting their work is what color model to use. The two most common color models for graphic design and printing are RGB and CMYK. But which of these two would give you the best print color for your product?

The Short Answer

According to 99designs, the CMYK color model is best for printing, while RGB is best for digital display. Thus, to answer the RGB vs CMYK question, the perfect color model for your tangible, printed product is CMYK.

However, understanding the difference between RGB and CMYK isn’t that simple. After all,  you won’t be simply using one or the other for your design needs. You’ll most likely need to use both at some point during the design and printing process. And in some cases, you might even need to use a different color model altogether.

With that in mind, let’s take an in-depth look at the RGB and CMYK color models, their differences, and when you should use each one.

Why Do You Need to Know the Difference Between RGB and CMYK?

Hmm, good question. After all, can’t you just design whatever you want on your computer screen and have it print out fine? Well, no—not quite.

It’s no secret that the world of print on demand revolves around great designs. Whether it’s for t-shirts, mugs, or notebooks, your design is what will ultimately sell your product. But in order to create a design that will translate well into a printed product, you need to know how color works for both digital and print platforms.

This is where the difference between RGB and CMYK comes in.

, CMYK vs RGB: How to Print the Right Colors – Awkward Styles, Awkward Styles Blog

You see, the colors you see on your computer screen are made up of light—tiny little particles that your eyes interpret as color. On the other hand, printed colors are made up of ink—tiny little droplets that contain pigment (yes, the stuff that gives color to your design).

Now, here’s where it gets a little tricky. The light that makes up RGB colors is combined in different ways to create different hues. For example, red and green light make yellow. Meanwhile, the pigments in CMYK inks are combined in a subtractive process. This basically means that the more ink you add, the darker your color becomes.

In other words, RGB colors are made by adding light together, while CMYK colors are made by taking light away.

What’s RGB Exactly?

, CMYK vs RGB: How to Print the Right Colors – Awkward Styles, Awkward Styles Blog

Since we’ve started talking about it, let’s define RGB real quick.

RGB stands for red green and blue—the three colors that make up every color you see on a computer screen, TV, or any other digital display.

Now, each of these colors is made up of a different wavelength of light. Red has the longest wavelength, while blue has the shortest. Green falls somewhere in the middle.

When these three colors are combined in different proportions, they create every color we see onscreen.

What Is RGB Used For?

As mentioned, the RGB color model is best for digital displays. This is because digital screens give off their own light, which then combines to create color.

So whenever you see colors on a computer screen, TV, or any other digital display, chances are it’s in the RGB color mode.

Thus if you’re planning to create any of the following for your marketing or digital design needs, you should use the RGB color mode:

  • Your brand logo for your online store
  • Social media icons and infographics
  • Blog banners and images
  • Some email headers
  • Product mockups to post on your online store

File Formats for RGB

Yep, the file format matters too.

For images that will be used on the web or for digital design purposes, it’s best to use .jpg or .png file formats. These file formats support the RGB color mode and are readable almost everywhere.

How About CMYK?

, CMYK vs RGB: How to Print the Right Colors – Awkward Styles, Awkward Styles Blog

Now that we’ve talked about RGB, it’s time to move on to CMYK.

CMYK stands for cyan, magenta, yellow, and black—the four colors used in the printing process. These are the inks that combine to create every color you see in a printed design.

Out of these four colors, cyan, magenta, and yellow are actually light-absorbing colors. They work by absorbing certain wavelengths of light and reflecting others back to your eyes. Black, on the other hand, is a pigment that absorbs all wavelengths of visible light.

Combining these inks in different proportions creates different colors, just like with RGB. However, since CMYK inks work in a subtractive process, adding more ink will create darker, more vivid colors.

This is why the CMYK color mode is best for print design purposes. It allows you to create colors that are dark enough to be printed on a product without affecting the details or intricacies of your design.

What Is CMYK Used For?

Having that said, the CMYK color mode is ideal for the following design projects:

  • Business cards
  • Brochures
  • Magazines
  • Posters
  • T-shirts
  • Tote Bags
  • Mugs
  • Hats

And pretty much anything else that’s going to be printed!

File Formats for CMYK

For any design that’s going to be printed, you should use the .pdf, .tiff, or .eps file format. These file formats support the CMYK color mode and are high-quality enough to be printed.

Converting RGB to CMYK

Let’s say you have an image that you want to use for a printed design project. But the image is in the RGB color mode, and you need it to be in CMYK. How do you convert it?

The good news is, it’s pretty easy to convert RGB to CMYK. Most editing software, like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, have an option to do this. All you need to do is open the image in your editing software and change the color mode from RGB to CMYK.

When you save the file, it will be saved as a CMYK image.

For a visual guide, check out our video tutorial on converting RGB to CMYK

Converting CMYK to RGB

The same goes for converting CMYK to RGB. If you have a design that’s in the CMYK color mode but you need it to be in RGB—for example, if you’re going to be using it on your website—you can easily convert it.

Again, most editing software will have this option. However, if you only have a CMYK file and no editing software, you can use an online converter to change it to RGB.

Some of the most convenient ones you can use are Color Designer and

Common Mistakes to Avoid

Knowing the difference between these two models makes you a step ahead in the design world. But even the most seasoned designers make mistakes when it comes to RGB vs CMYK. Here are some of the most common ones to avoid:

Not Proofreading Your Design

Before you hit print (or publish, if it’s a digital design), it’s important to proofread your design. This means checking for any typos, grammatical errors, or incorrect information. It might seem like a small detail, but even a simple mistake can make your design look unprofessional.

Not Communicating with Your Print Provider

If you’re working with a print provider, it’s important to communicate your design requirements with them. This includes letting them know which color mode you used—RGB or CMYK—as well as the file format you saved your design in. That way, they can ensure that your design prints correctly.

Failing to Convert RGB Files to CMYK

If you have an RGB file that you need to use for a print project, make sure to convert it to CMYK before sending it off to the printer. Otherwise, your design might not print correctly.

The Final Verdict

, CMYK vs RGB: How to Print the Right Colors – Awkward Styles, Awkward Styles Blog

Choosing between RGB and CMYK comes down to what you’re using your design for. And while the differences and technicalities might seem intimidating at first, it all becomes natural as you design more and more. Just remember to proofread before you print (or hit publish), and you’ll be good to go!

And once you’ve finished crafting your awesome product designs, head on over to our free mockup generator and let’s bring them to life! We’ll make sure every order is printed perfectly, so you can focus on what you do best: designing beautiful products and growing your brand.

Here’s to print perfection!

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