RGB vs CMYK the Difference

Lets face it we’ve all started out before. For some we’re past the start of our professional designing debut, for others we’re Just Starting Out. For those just starting out I am providing a series of my tips every designer should know. This week it I am focusing on part 3 – RGB vs CMYK the Difference. Thats right part 3 of my Do’s and Don’ts is focused on color. As a designer we have access to large amounts of possible colors. Depending on the end result, our options change. As a designer it is vital to know the differences and how the color will look once the project is done.


RGB vs CMYK: RGB additive

Lets get technical for a moment here, RGB is an additive color model. This means that by adding elements of the three colors (R)ed (G)reen (B)lue light we get the effect of the color we want to something to look like. For example looking at yellow on your screen is not actually yellow, but rather a screen simulation of what yellow looks like by combining wavelengths of red and green colors. The video below from Vsauce has a great video on this.

When you look at an image on your computer or mobile device you are seeing a combination of image laid out between three channels. The image below shows how the image on the left is broken down between the RGB channels.

RGB vs CMYK: RGB Channels

RGB color mode should only be used when the finalized piece will be displayed on a display device, such as computer monitor, Televsion, mobile device or other. It is important to realize that the RGB color model is device dependent. It can have a different look depending on the device used to display the image.


RGB vs CMYK: CMYK subtractive

As RGB is an additive color model, CMYK is a subtractive color model. In the CMYK Model, you cover or mask the lighter substrate, such as paper to obstruct (subtract) the light that is reflected. CMYK typically refers to printed pieces and/or the method of printing the pieces. The term of CMYK refers to the Ink, that is laid on to the material to produce the final image. There are 4 main inks used in this method of printing, (C)yan (M)agenta (Y)ellow and (K)ey – Black. It is a misconception that the (K) in CMYK refers to black, the “Key plate” is the plate that pertains the plate with the detail of the image.

Typically images that use the CMYK color mode have four color channels. The image below shows the four chanels that go into creating the image on the left.

RGB vs CMYK: CMYK Channels

CMYK images should be used when the end results call for it. Depending on the final piece it is possible to have an image or piece with a different number of inks. Check with the print vendor to understand the cost associated with adding or reducing the number of inks.


The RGB vs CMYK Difference of color modes also comes down to the possible number of visible colors. RGB color space allows for a larger variety of visible colors to be displayed than when printing the same image. And by contrast the typical human eye is capable of viewing more colors than can be reproduced. Below shows an example of the same image in RGB and CMYK. you’ll notice the image on the right seems “duller” or less saturated, than the image on the left. Please note this is an exaggerated example used to illustrate the differences between the two color spaces.


Knowing the difference when it comes to RGB vs CMYK, is helpful in successfully sending projects to a printer. By knowing the RGB vs CMYK Differences your projects will come out looking exactly how you envisioned them. Do you have any comments or questions related to RGB vs CMYK Differences, let me know in the comments below. Be sure to come back for the next part of my tips for Designers Just Starting Out.