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CMYK vs. RGB: What the Heck’s the Difference?

As the popularity of digitally native brands diving headfirst into the world of print continues to grow, we’ve started to notice a common trend: What the heck is the difference between CMYK and RGB?   

Most people familiar with graphic design or print would be able to tell you that CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black, while RBG stands for the three primary colors in Red, Green and Blue. 

Yes, some people will argue the “K” in CMYK stands for Key color, but that’s an entirely separate blog. Keep on reading! 

If you felt that elementary art class was now a lie when you were told that RGB were the only colors that mattered, don’t feel bad — we’ve been there. The important distinction is that RGB is an additive process to make the color white while CMYK is a subtractive process that creates black. An easy way to separate the distinction is by the medium. RGB is the language of digital while CMYK is the language of print. This is especially important when preparing files for catalog production as the editing takes place in an RGB environment.    

Our good friends at Artisan Colour have been tackling the CMYK vs. RGB challenge for the past twenty years and have established themselves as a top print catalog production and color management company. We were fortunate enough to chat with founders Doug Bondon and John Passante on some key considerations when moving from on the screen to off.  

Here are a few of the key distinctions that came up between CMYK and RGB from our conversation with them: 

First, understand that when you are editing photography and putting together catalog page files you are editing on a backlit monitor. Pull up a picture on your phone. Turn the brightness all the way up. Now turn the brightness all the way down. The picture looks totally different, doesn’t it?  

This doesn’t translate over to print so it’s important when editing to consider the monitor brightness. One great way to combat this change is to utilize a prebuilt profile that sets the screen properties accordingly.  

Second, is that not all papers are created equal. Like many manufacturing processes, there are certain tolerances that are acceptable. Depending on factors like coated papers versus uncoated papers, brand and grade of stock, it can impact the final piece significantly. This is why when it comes to proofing and designing, we try to control variables as much as possible to simulate or mimic the stock that is being utilized on the production.  

If you are pulling proofs on a glossy coated sheet and it looks great, but you are printing on an uncoated recycled sheet, you’re going to be in for quite a surprise when the final product shows up. The goal of successful color management is to eliminate these surprises so what you are expecting to see is what shows up in the mailbox.  

Finally, there are an abundance of CMYK vs. RGB resources online that allow you to convert from one to the other. Some are better than others but even the best ones will only get you about 80% of the way there. If you desire exacting color in print and want the best representation of your brand possible, that is where additional resources and planning may be required to achieve your desired outcome.  

By utilizing a robust color management approach starting with the photography and ending with the final printed piece you can create a visually stunning piece that is sure to engage consumers. 

If you’re still uncertain about the differences in CMYK vs. RGB and how that affects the print production process, we’d be happy to get a call scheduled between us and one of our great friends at Artisan Colour. Just drop us a note and leave your information at our contact page here and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible.