The difference between RGB and CMYK

Are you sometimes frustrated when the colors on your print marketing materials look different from the colors you see on your computer monitor? Perhaps you’ve been disappointed when your vivid image turns dull and dark as you convert it from RGB to CMYK. As you have probably discovered, the colors on a computer monitor frequently look more vibrant than the colors in print. Why are these colors different? When you create marketing materials or work with a designer, you will find it helpful to understand the differences between the CMYK and RGB color modes. 


RGB Color

Use: Onscreen

Use in digital. Ideal for display banners, digital ads, email, website, ebooks, etc.

RGB stands for Red, Green and Blue, the primary colors of this model. This model is additive, meaning the right combination of these primary colors is added to produce a broad array of other colors. This model begins with black and tends toward white. In other words, as red, green, and blue are added in various combinations and intensities, it gets lighter (closer to white). Using the RGB color mode creates vibrant display colors. RGB is used to display images on computer screens, televisions, and digital devices. It is also the standard model for web design.


CMYK Color

Use: Print

Use in offset and digital printing. Ideal for business cards, brochures, flyers, postcards with photos, etc.

CMYK stands for the colors cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. CMYK is a subtractive model that is also known as 4-color process. The idea with subtractive models like CMYK is that colors from the spectrum are subtracted from natural white light into pigments. An easy way to think of this is that it’s a lot like mixing paint. One begins with white and adds various amounts of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. As one continues to add colors, it tends toward black. So why is it called subtractive when we’re actually adding colors? Each color (cyan, magenta, and yellow) has an opposing color that is absorbed (or subtracted) when put on a white reflective surface. This 4-color model is used to create all of the necessary colors in print.



We also sometimes use Pantone color for print instead of using CMYK or in addition to CMYK.

What is Pantone color?

PMS (Pantone Matching System)

Use: Print

Use in offset printing only. Ideal for business cards, letterhead, postcards with 1-2 solid colors and no photos, etc.

As I briefly explained about CMYK, known as a four-color process, the main difference between CMYK and Pantone color is the level of accuracy. PMS stands for Pantone Matching System (PMS), a proprietary color space used in a variety of industries. The Pantone process is more consistent and able to produce colors closer in shade to the ones seen in the digital design stage. The advantage of using Pantone colors is consistency. For example: when I print simple business cards that have only a logo and text, I use Pantone colors for print consistency from job to job. Even if I use a different printer, the colors are consistent. 

Printing CMYK color


Printing a Pantone (PMS) color


Can we use both CMYK and Pantone for print?

Yes, we can use both colors but it’s more expensive. For example: If you have a full-color booklet that will use 4-color process (CMYK), but you want your logo to be your exact Pantone color, you can do it as an option. This is called a 5-color process and it will increase your print cost but your brand color will be consistent. Why brand consistency is important? You can build your brand awareness and develop trust and loyalty with customers. 


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