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What is the difference between CMYK and RGB?

a wall of coloured frames

Welcome to the wonderful (sometimes frustrating ?) world of print and graphic design. You are likely to come across these terms CMYK and RGB when dealing with print products. Both are colour spaces widely used in design softwares such as Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator. Both are applied very differently and fortunately with modern technology both can be converted to achieve a close match. Knowing which colour space to work in is crucial as it gives you more control over the final output.

Colour theory is a complete subject on its own so I’ll just write about the basics here to give you a fundamental understanding. Pre-press companies go through the trouble to hire colour specialists to look at all images placed after the graphic designers have created the layouts, making necessary adjustments for beautiful vibrant prints.


It stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black. CMYK is mainly used for printed physical art such as posters, magazines, t-shirts etc. A printing machine combines the four colours to produce images. Most people will get the concept of mixing colours in CMYK immediately as it is exactly like how we used to mix paints in kindergarten. The more colour you add in, the darker it gets. A mixture of all four colours will produce pure black. This is known as subtractive mixing.


This colour space is made up of Red, Green and Blue light spectrums and is mainly used for web and digital mediums (websites, social media, smartphone apps, movies etc.). Contrary to CMYK, RGB starts out with black, combining all three colours will produce pure white, also known as additive mixing.

Other notable colour spaces

  • Pantone – a range of standardized swatches for print, which many companies use for their branding to ensure colour consistency throughout printed ads and promo materials across the globe.
  • HEX – a 6 digit code made up of letters and numbers to represent intensities of Red, Green and Blue. Widely used in website design.

The differences make a difference

There are often distinct differences when viewing artwork on different platforms. Colours on screen usually appear more vibrant than the printed version. Remember that computer screens are RGB, meaning that we are looking at an RGB representation of CMYK. RGB contains a wider spectrum than CMYK and screens are illuminated and bright, hence pictures on screen look better.

It should be noted that there is no perfect conversion between colour spaces but we can strive to bring the values close to a match. Even when working in the correct space, there will still be slight differences. This has to do with the calibration and colour profiles between your display screen and the printer. It means that two different machines may produce subtly different printouts from the exact same file. Different types of papers will also effect the quality of the print – such as low quality paper does not absorb ink as well, prints appear brighter on glossy paper, colours don’t show well on textured paper etc.

To avoid nasty surprises, use the correct colour space from the start. Try viewing your design on your computer, and even on your phone, then print it out to compare.

Try before you buy

Ask for paper samples, ask for advice, ask for a test print. Print companies usually keep catalogs of past work so that you can flick through to get an idea of what you can expect. Experiment on several paper types and thickness too. Always do a sample print before booking in a massive print job. In case the results are not satisfactory, the values colours can be adjusted to suit your liking.

Hope that this helped improve your understanding of print. Check out my shop for some fun printables! I promise you they are all CMYK ready for print. If you have a story I would love to hear about it. ? Share your good and bad experiences in the comments below! ???

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