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RGB vs CMYK: What’s the difference?

Whether you’re a designer or you’re getting a design, it’s important to know the difference between the RGB and CMYK color modes so you can plan and optimize each stage of the design process.

We’re going to explain what the RGB and CMYK color modes are, how they work and when it’s best to use each.

Both RGB and CMYK are modes for mixing color in graphic design. As a quick reference, the RGB color model is best for digital work, while CMYK is used for print products. But to fully optimize your design, you need to understand the mechanisms behind each.

What is RGB?

RGB (Red, Green, and Blue) is the color space for digital images. Use the RGB color mode if your design is supposed to be displayed on any kind of screen.

Scanners, digital cameras, Mobiles, and computer monitors use red, green, and blue (RGB) light to display color.

When the red, green, and blue light is mixed together at equal intensity, they create pure white.

When to use RGB?

If the end destination of your design project is a digital screen, use the RGB color mode. This would go for anything that involves computers, smartphones, tablets, TVs, cameras, etc.

  • Web & app design
    • icons
    • buttons
    • graphics
  •  Branding
    • online logos
    • online ads
  •  Social media
    • images for posts
    • profile pictures
    • profile backgrounds
  •  Visual content
    • video
    • digital graphics
    • infographics
    • photographs for website, social media, or apps

What are the best file formats for RGB?

JPEGs (Joint Photographic Expert Groups) are ideal for RGB files because they’re a nice middle-ground between file size and quality, and they’re readable almost anywhere.

PSD (Photoshop Document) is the standard source file for RGB documents, assuming all team members are working with Adobe Photoshop.

PNGs (Portable Network Graphic) support transparency and are better for graphics that need to be superimposed over others. Consider this file type for interface elements like buttons, icons, or banners.

GIFs (Graphics Interchange File) capture motion, so if you’re using an animated element, such as a moving logo or a bouncing icon, this file type would be ideal.

It’s best to avoid TIFF, EPS, PDF, and BMP for RGB purposes. These formats are not compatible with most software, not to mention they can be unnecessarily large in terms of data.

What is CMYK?

CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Key /Black) is the color space for printed materials.

A printing machine creates images by combining CMYK colors to varying degrees with physical ink. This is known as subtractive mixing. All colors start as blank white, and each layer of ink reduces the initial brightness to create the preferred color. When all colors are mixed together, they create pure black.

When to use CMYK?

Use CMYK for any project design that will be physically printed, not viewed on a screen. If you need to recreate your design with ink or paint, the CMYK color mode will give you more accurate results.

Turn to CMYK if your project involves:

  •  Branding
    • business cards
    • stationary
    • stickers
    • signs & storefronts
  •  Advertising
    • billboards
    • posters
    • flyers
    • vehicle wraps
    • brochures
  •  Merchandise
    • t-shirts, hats and other branded clothing
    • Promotional swag (pens, mugs, etc.)
  •  Essential materials
    • product packaging
    • restaurant menus
What are the best file formats for CMYK?

PDFs are ideal for CMYK files because they are compatible with most programs.

AI is the standard source file for CMYK, assuming all team members are working with Adobe Illustrator.

EPS can be a great source file alternative to AI because it is compatible with other vector programs.

All things considered, it’s always best to consult your printer beforehand to find out which file format they prefer.

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