RGB vs CMYKTo save money, some small businesses use DIY methods to create their marketing materials. They’ll set-up their business cards, brochures, etc. in Publisher and then send them to an online printer to be produced. But when the product comes back they get a shock because the colors aren’t anything like what they expected – for example, reds come out orange and purples have a brown tint. If this has ever happened to you, let me break down what happened and how you can fix it going forward.

The issue happens because of the difference between RGB and CMYK colors. They can look almost identical on the screen, but when you translate them from the digital to the physical world you see the difference.

RGB Color: RGB is how your monitor displays colors. It uses combinations of red, green, and blue light and is called “additive color” because when the RGB values are all set to maximum (255, 255, 255) we get white. If they’re all set to zero we get black. Because RGB creates color in a non-physical way, it can create colors you aren’t able to match on a hard copy.

CMYK Color: CMYK (aka 4-Color Process) is how we print colors. It uses a combination of cyan, magenta, yellow, and key (black). CMYK is “subtractive color” so when all the values are set to maximum (100, 100, 100, 100) we get black. If they’re all set to zero we get white. In other words, CMYK is the opposite of RGB.

CMYK can’t create as many color variations as RGB because a drop of ink can only be so small. As printing technology becomes more and more advanced, the number of colors available in CMYK increases, but it will always be limited by the physical world.


RGB colors in the left column will output as the CMYK colors on the right.

What does this have to do with your DIY print project?
Applications like Publisher are not designed for professional printing. They only work in RGB. In fact, if you place a CMYK image into Publisher it will be converted to RGB. Professional printers only work in CMYK so when send them a file created in Publisher they’re going to print the RGB colors using CMYK values. The example image shows you how colors will shift.

So what can you do about it?
In or to make your colors more accurate you need to change one of the variables in the equation.

Option #1 – Print them on your desktop printer. Even though your desktop printer uses CMYK tanks or toner, the drivers for most of them are designed to convert the data into RGB. There will still be a bit of a color shift, but not as drastic as with a professional printer.

I don’t recommend this option for a couple reasons. First, ink and toner are expensive. Unless you’re doing a very short run (less than 100), the cost per item will be a lot more than having them professionally printed. Second, anyone who’s been in the business world for any length of time can spot a DIY desktop print job a mile away. If it’s a business card you can feel the perforations, if it’s a brochure the paper will be too thin, etc. The perception this creates devalues your brand.

Option #2 – Have the project converted before you send it to print. Professional graphics software like Illustrator or Photoshop can work in both RGB and CMYK. So a professional who uses these tools can either convert or recreate your project to so it meets the right print specifications. It may cost a little more in the short term, but it will save you in the long term and protect your brand’s reputation.

A couple other color-related terms to know
There are a couple other terms you should know when it comes to color. They’re sort of subsets of RGB and CMYK.

HTML (Hex) Color: Similar to RGB because it’s created in a virtual space, Hex color is how websites display color. It uses an alphanumeric code (for example red is #ed1c24) and works with website programming languages like HTML or CSS. If you’re trying to match a color from a website, you’ll need to get the hex color. Most web browsers have extensions for sampling the color and getting the code. But, keep in mind not all monitors display colors the same. So if you’re converting Hex color for a print job you may get some unexpected results.

PMS Colors: PMS stands for Pantone Matching System. It’s the standardized color library professional printers use for creating and matching color. If you need to match a color exactly, you need to look at a PMS book – not an online PMS converter, but a physical book. A PMS Color Bridge book will accurately show you how the color will look when it’s produced in CMYK and in RGB. It also gives all the settings to recreate it in CMYK, RGB, and Hex. PMS books are pretty expensive, but most professional designers and printers will usually have a set on hand.

Hopefully now you have a better understanding of how color is produced and you’ll have fewer surprises when you print your marketing materials. If you have any questions or need help with any of this, please feel free to reach out.

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