Small Business Color 101: The Difference Between CMYK & RGB

For any creative type or small business entrepreneur, understanding basic elements of design are a necessity. color spectrum for small businessThe internet economy is practically run on visual imagery, so knowing the basics of digital color spectrums are a great way to stay on top of design basics and make sure you’re executing your designs properly.

Knowing the differences and importance of the CMYK vs RGB color spectrums is super helpful when it comes to creating artwork. In our case, the outcome of custom labels greatly depends on what spectrum you use, so we’re going to share some of the digital and print design basics so the next time you’re sitting in front of a blank Illustrator or Photoshop file, you’ll know exactly where to start.

The information below will help ensure that the colors you’d like to see on your printed label will be just that.

RGB: The Digital Spectrum

The acronym, “RGB,” stands for red, green, blue; simple, straightforward – we like it.

RGB is the color spectrum or range of colors you can see on computer monitors and digital displays. They are also additive colors. If you add different amounts and combinations of red, green, and blue together, other colors are created.

The reason that the RGB spectrum is used in the digital world is because if you combine red, green, and blue are added together, you’ll end up with white. But not white in the sense of a color; white in the sense of “light.” The light emitted through the computer screen allows you to see the RGB colors that you do. With the combo of these colors, the light becomes the white.  Conversely, black is the absence of color on your digital display.

CMYK: The Print Spectrum

CMYK stands for cyan, magenta, yellow, and key (black) and it is the color spectrum – or range of colors – you will see on your printed media in the form of ink.

C, M, Y, and K are known as “subtractive colors.” Think of these colors as paints or inks; it’s what we print with.

The key difference between these colors and the RGB spectrum is that you need an existing light source to see them. With this in mind, if you have a little palette of C, M, and Y inks, and start wildly mixing them together, you’ll come up with a murky, darkish brown color. Only by adding key will all the colors turn from murky brown to black.

How does the black do this? Because the black ink is absorbing all the colors. A color of ink exists because of its chemical makeup plus a light source. Green ink, which is a combo of yellow and cyan, is seen because of the light reflecting off the surface of the ink. All colors of visible spectrum (what colors our eyes can detect) are absorbed except the mix of cyan and the yellow which is reflected back to our eyes as green.

How to Decide Which Color Spectrum to Use

Keeping it simple, if you’re going to design something that will eventually be printed, you’ll want to use the CMYK color spectrum. Here at Frontier Label, our printers print in CMYK so we require artwork to be in CMYK in order to process it.

RGB allows you to see more vivid colors that the CMYK spectrum doesn’t really allow for. That’s why it is used primarily for websites and digital artwork.

A lot of times, RGB is the default color spectrum when you’re designing with web or desktop applications and they are saved with that setting. JPEGs, PNGs, TIFFs, and more can all be exported in an RGB color spectrum.

But what if you’re printed artwork is built in RGB? Not a problem, but here are a few things to keep in mind. RGB is mostly used for web design; you’ll be able to achieve brighter colors and neons simply because of that broader color spectrum of light. When a physical printer converts RGB artwork to CMYK before printing, the colors shift or change when converted. For 99% of applications, it won’t be drastic or noticeable to the human eye, but the brighter colors or neons which can be achieved on screen, will appear less intense when in a printed format.

So, before you design, you should know whether or not your art will be in a printed format. If you’re designing for specifically for print, such as labels for bottles, then you should be working with the CMYK color spectrum. That way your final product will resemble your original design to the pixel.

If you’re only working with web, RGB is the way to go. You’ll get more drastic colors that way.

And if you don’t know whether or not your design will become printed in the future – don’t worry. For the most part, your artwork will be pretty much the same, but do expect to see slightly duller colors if you’re using particularly bright hues in your design.

About Chris Galis

Chris Galis is a writer at Frontier Label, a label design, manufacturing and print shop located in Greenville, SC that specializes in the label printing process and providing amazing customer service to creators and makers across the country.