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Difference between RGB, CMYK color profile

What is the difference between RGB and CMYK? Color formats come in several “shades”. For practical purposes we will discuss the key differences and applications between RGB, CMYK and we will even touch on PMS colors. The reason to write this article is to inform you as a business owner or even marketing director that differences exist in color formats and it could ruin a perfectly good printed brochure.

When working with a graphic designer it should be understood that they have knowledge between the color format differences. But not all designers know the difference.

So briefly…


RGB stands for Red, Green, Blue. This is the color spectrum for anything online using screens or displays. If you see it on a screen then you are viewing the colors in RGB. I’m not going to get into the fact that RGB is known as an additive color process. You can read that here if you want more technical information.

As a Creative Director I receive professional photographs all the time for a variety of projects that I work on. I work with photographers for websites, online ads, blogs, social media sites as well as print brochures, magazine ads and corporate identity packages. 99.9% of all photos that I receive are sent to me in RGB mode. Again this is great if I am using it for an online medium.

The problem comes in if I need to use that image for anything printed.


In 2000, when I began Treehouse Creations as a graphic design firm in the Vail Valley, I had a client that published a nice magazine for the Art Galleries in the Vail Valley. Over 60 professional photos were supplied to me. This was the early days when we worked in Quark Xpress and when you sent the Quark files to the printer. You didn’t preflight the files in Adobe Acrobat first and send the printer a pdf file. The 48 page gloss magazine was designed and sent to the printer. The proofs were reviewed and one of the art images was flat, as in no color saturation. I rushed to my computer opened the files and checked the image. It turns out that this image was somehow not turned into a CMYK file. I was able to find the mistake, correct it and send it back to the printer where they printed the correct CMYK file.

This was a lesson that could have turned a new design firm on its back. Had I printed this high end publication the client would have seen that their image was not printed correctly and it would have fallen on my shoulders. Whew!


We’ve touched on CMYK but let’s get into it alittle more. CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black. Why is K black? Some say it would confuse people if you had a B instead of K, they would think it stood for Blue not Black. Others suggest that it stands for “(K)ey”. As the other three colors on press were keyed in with the black plate during the printing process. Either way, we call this process CMYK.

We now know that RGB is an additive color process, so yes, that would mean that CMYK is a subtractive color process. Again, you can read more about that here.

The takeaway regarding CMYK is that if you are offset printing you will need to convert all images to CMYK or there could be problems.

There are many ways to get an image from RGB to CMYK but that will be for another time.

Pantone or PMS

PMS or Pantone color, a propriety color space is a color system that is used for very specific colors choices. For more detail please read here. But the best example I can provide is a company like IBM uses an exact blue. If a printing press were to print a CMYK logo on a brochure in California and a printing press in New Jersey printed the same brochure there is a good chance that the shade of color in the logo would be different as there are many factors that go into printing. Again, this is for another time.

The way around this problem and to ensure consistency is to choose a PMS color where it should be guaranteed to be the same color no matter where you print it.

PMS colors do not really work on monitors as each monitor is calibrated differently. It is almost impossible to guarantee consistent colors from one monitor to another. But it is accepted as the industry norm.

By the way…

If you mix all the possible RGB color combinations together you have about 16,777,216 possible color outcomes as opposed to CMYK where if you mix all of the CMYK color combinations together you can get about 1,000,000 different options. Just save this info for a rainy day of trivia game night.

If you have any questions please email me here or call me at 970-328-5222.


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