Colour plays a more important role in everyday life than many people think. It can affect your mood, influence your buying choices and it can also alter your first impression of a brand. If you want to convey the right message, getting the colour right in your design is crucial.

As a designer, you should already be familiar with the RGB and CMYK colour system and which one to use if you want your design to look as intended. Knowing which colour system to use will is a lot easier when you know what format your design will be used in.

There are two major colour systems in the print and digital industries: RGB and CMYK. We’re going to explain the difference between the two and show you how easy it is to switch between them in your favourite Adobe applications.

  • RGB: Red, Green, Blue. Use for digital designs
  • CMYK: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black. Use for anything printed.

What is RGB?

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RGB stands for Red, Green and Blue. It’s used extensively in the digital design industry as it represents the same colours used in all types of screens such as computer, television and mobile devices.

RGB is an additive colour system which means that the primary colours are added together in various combinations, which produces an expanded spectrum of colours. These colours are produced by blending light itself by superimposing the red, green and blue light beam. Without any intensity, each of those colours will be perceived as black, while full intensity will make them appear white.

Different intensities of each colour will also produce the hue of a particular colour. The resulting colour would appear more or less saturated depending on the difference between the most and the least intensive colour.

When should you use the RGB colour system?

It is common knowledge throughout the design industry that the RGB colour system should only be used in digital design, such as designing for the web. This also includes any imagery that will be used on the web such as any imagery and graphics.

What is CMYK?

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CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black. Black in this case, is referred to as key because it is used in the key plate which is responsible for adding the contrast and the detail for the final image.

The CMYK colour system is most commonly referred to as the four-colour process because it uses four different colours to produce different hues. The black colour here is used because the other three colours combined cannot produce a fully saturated black.

Unlike the RGB colour system, CMYK is a subtractive colour model because the printed ink reduces light that would normally be reflected. The inks used subtract the brightness from a white background from those four colours.

The CMYK colours are mixed during the printing process which can sometimes cause minor inconsistences. For that reason, you should always look at the printed proof of a given project before going through with the final print run.

Why should you use CMYK?

As hinted in the previous section, CMYK is the recommended colour system for any material that will be printed. This includes business cards, brochures, letterheads and any other business collateral.

Since this colour model is the only one that can produce the greatest accuracy when printing colour photography, it should be your primary choice for any print job that uses more than four colours.

How to convert RGB to CMYK in Adobe programs and keep your colours vivid.

The majority of design software is set to use the RGB colour system. RGB is perfect for designing for web but if your project is intended for print, you need to switch to CMYK.

To convert to CMYK in the Adobe programs, follow the instructions below.

  • Photoshop: Image > Mode > CMYK Colour
  • Illustrator: File > Document Colour Mode > CMYK Colour
  • InDesign: Window > Colour (then click the dropdown button in the upper right corner and select CMYK)

Final Thoughts

It is important to use the correct colour mode in any project as it saves you time as well as helping your final project look as intended, whether that is for print or the web.

Be aware of which colour mode you are using in you design software and adjust it accordingly. You don’t want to spend months on a print project to find out that the final printed product doesn’t look as you intended.