What Every Designer Needs to Know About Their Printed Colors

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Published on July 18, 2016 with No Comments


Going from a digital media to a printed media and having the printed material turn out faded or the colors wrong can completely ruin a designer’s day. This largely comes from the issue of printed colors actually working off a different system than those used by the average computer design program. Most computer programs, other than the full versions of photoshop, can only manipulate works in a (Red-Green-Blue) RGB format, but all work is only printed in a (Cyan-Magenta-Yellow-Black) CMYK format. So what you see on the screen isn’t necessarily the same as the color coming out of your ink cartridges. See a problem here? So to better understand the process, let’s start with just some of the basics.

RGB Format

This color format is what is known as additive color. This is because it is generally used with computers and televisions and other electronic devices that require a proper stream of color and most screens start out black, which means they lack any color. Certain color based on combining specific levels of red, green and blue together create the colors you see on the screen, such as each of those colors being at 0 will give you black and each one at their max contribution provides white.

Now RGB actually is capable of the broadest collection of colors, able to produce over thousands of different colors, which means it is a great format to design in, but many designs also end up needing to be printed, this doesn’t mean you should design in a different format, but that eventually you will have to convert from the RGB color to CMYK color. Not a total pain, but that is why preview is your friend, so you know ahead of time if something gets messed up in the conversion.

CMYK Format

As you can probably decipher, this color format is called subtractive color due to the medium generally being white or a similar white like shade. Because white is all the colors present together, we then have to remove color from the paper to create the colors we want. This can be achieved with just the CMY portion of the color, the K or Black portion is added because the black color that CMY can achieve is more a brown and it is much easier to color something with a quick black than combining the other three together for when you want your text to be black.

The key to remember with CMYK Format, is that the color of your paper can actually heavily effect how your colors turn out. Using a crème colored paper will get you warmer looking colors while something like blue paper would provide a heavily blue tint to any of your colors. CMYK also has a smaller range of colors, which means that many colors that might have looked different before, will now be looking the same color. This can be painful if you were using rich and extensive colors with RGB Format then changed over.

Designing Print Colors

Now that you know what the differences are between CMYK and RGB, we now come to the choice of choosing which to use when actually designing. There are both pros and cons for each, and it will largely come up to personal choice.

RGB and CMYK Pros and Cons

  • RGB comes with a larger color range, known as a color gamut. Allowing for more precise color control over CMYK.
  • RGB files are actually somewhere around 20% to 30% smaller than CMYK ones, taking up considerably less room than normal.
  • All digital media deals with RGB, so in case there is the possibility of what you create being on the web, having a fleshed out RGB file can be more beneficial than a CMYK one.
  • Most graphic programs only allow you to do any work on a file if it is RGB, and even ones like photoshop only allow certain things to be done in CMYK.
  • All files for print must be CMYK before being printed, if you design in any format other than that, you must convert the file, which will likely result in color loss or changes.

So now that you know a bit more about the color process with design programs and printing, which color format do you want to use? 

Carla Eaton has a B.A. in Mass Media and writes on the topics of business, technology, and design. She currently blogs for inkfarm.com, which specializes in Canon printer ink.

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