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Technical Tuesday – May 2016

     -     May 17th, 2016   -     Creative Design   -     0 Comments

Understanding the Difference Between RGB and CMYK Color Modes

As a marketer, it’s not uncommon to have to create and design work for your firm. If you’re new to the process and new to software such as InDesign, it can be a confusing minefield to navigate. There are many mistakes that can be made that can have a serious impact on the quality of your final printed work whether it be something as simple as a business card or a larger piece such as a firm capabilities brochure. And because print runs can be expensive, these mistakes can prove very costly. Below is an important discussion that will teach and help prepare you with the crucial knowledge required to correctly set up a design for print.

Know the Difference Between RGB and CMYK

The most obvious mistake that newcomers fall victim to is the misuse of RGB and CMYK color modes. RGB (red, green & blue) is an additive color system where light is used to mix colors. Basically, the more light you add, the brighter and more vibrant the color gets. When working on digital designs such as an e-blast or a website, you’ll work in RGB mode because that’s how your monitor works as well as mobile devices. The mistake and problem arises when designs for print are created using an RGB based color model.

CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) is a subtractive color system where inks are mixed to create a range of different hues, much like mixing paint as a traditional artist. The more ink you mix the darker the color gets. The spectrum of colors that can be produced by light is much wider than the range achievable by ink, so our design applications have a special CMYK mode to limit the “gamut” of the colors we have available when creating a design that will ultimately be printed.

Failing to design in CMYK color mode and instead creating your designs in RGB may result in you selecting awesome colors that just cannot be reproduced in print without special inks such as Pantone inks which add cost and expense to your print job. If you don’t realize this early on you’re going to be in for a surprise when your prints come back all dull and muted.

A few examples of how RGB does not translate to CMYK include:


Keep an eye on
CMYK color values

The typical CMYK color model gets darker as you add more ink, and in the printing process this is done using an offset lithographic printing press (or a digital printer for smaller runs). This machine lays down a coverage of the four inks of cyan, magenta, yellow and black over the same area of paper to overlay the inks and create a much wider range of colors. Tiny halftone screens determine how much ink from each plate is applied across the print.

iStock_000011802991_FullIn design applications such as InDesign and Photoshop we can easily add CMYK color swatches manually or select colors using the color picker tool. Keep in mind that colors that use large amounts of cyan, magenta, yellow and black will quickly become oversaturated and any total values containing over 280% coverage may result in ugly, muddy colors.

One of the best tools fail safe tools for picking color values is to use a CMYK fan book that has hundreds of pre-printed CMYK swatches so you are guaranteed to know what a color will print as. Fan books are available in both coated and uncoated paper stocks and can be purchased through Pantone. Be forewarned that color sampling from a photograph might show the color looking fine on screen, but in reality the color prints different and will always be darker than your original design. This is why fan books work to prevent these issues.


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Using the above steps is a good way to ensure the colors in your printed designs turn out the way they should. Always make sure your photos and graphic elements are in CMYK mode and be sure to design using CMYK color builds vs. RGB. If you are designing and come across an issue or problem you are unsure how to fix or need assistance with, FlashPoint Marketing can help you work it out. Contact us today.

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