RGB vs. CMYK might sound like graphic design jargon, but choosing the correct color mode for your designs and file formats can significantly impact revenue and brand loyalty. Using the right document color mode ensures the printing process doesn’t result in a bunch of tiny dots or a red, green, and blue mess that has your customers turning to competitors for higher-quality prints.
Use an RGB color space for digital materials
CMYK file formats are standard for printed materials
Inaccurate colors will damage brand loyalty and your store’s bottom lin
Ordering physical samples and reviewing customer feedback is vital to maintaining color accuracy
To choose the correct color mode for your project, you’ll need a firm grasp of how these color modes work and which file formats best suit the task.
Perhaps not surprisingly, RGB stands for Red, Green, and Blue - the color channels used in this model. The RGB color mode uses varying intensities of colored light to create its pigments; as a result, it’s the ideal choice for designs people will see on-screen only.
The RGB color mode is an additive color model, meaning each image starts as pure black. Screens then add red, green, and blue light in varying intensities, saturations, and shades to create a designer's intended colors and (ultimately) produce an image.
Setting each channel to zero results in black, while setting everything to 255 - the maximum saturation value - makes white light. The visible spectrum in between contains nearly 17 million other red-green-blue color combinations!
CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and BlacK (okay, okay - technically, it’s “Key,” but the color’s easier to remember, so just roll with us here). When added to a pure white image, these colors mask others: cyan absorbs red, magenta absorbs green, yellow absorbs blue, and black absorbs everything. This color absorption is why the CMYK color model is known as a subtractive process.
Graphic designers set the intensity of each CMYK channel to produce their desired colors. However, no cyan, magenta, and yellow combination results in a deep, rich black, so designers use the K value to set the overall darkness of a given color in print files.
Because the CMYK color model doesn’t depend on a bright light source to produce its colors, it’s industry standard for physically-printed designs - think wall art, t-shirts, hoodies, tote bags, phone cases, and the like.
Creating your design using the appropriate color mode is only one part of the equation. You must also know which file types work with RGB vs. CMYK color modes to choose the correct file format to save and share your designs. Selecting the wrong file format can compromise color accuracy and even trash your design.
PNGs, or Portable Network Graphics, are a common format for storing and transmitting digital image files. One of this file’s significant advantages is its ability to produce a transparent background, making them ideal for layered designs.
However, PNGs do not support the CMYK color mode, which means a print design created in the CMYK color space will be converted to RGB colors when saved as a PNG, resulting in compromised color data.
The JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group) primarily supports the RGB color mode and is arguably the best-known file format for photos and other digital images.
While creating a JPEG using the CMYK mode is possible, many applications reject such files. Others will attempt to convert it to the RGB color mode, introducing color accuracy issues. Creating your digital graphics in an RGB color space is best if you plan to distribute them via JPEG.
A PSD, or Photoshop Document, can support a CMYK color mode or an RGB color mode. However, because graphic designers primarily use PSDs to transmit and store digital images, PSDs are most commonly used as RGB files.
A PDF (Portable Document Format) is a versatile file type. Although a PDF can support either a CMYK color mode or an RGB color mode, they’re ideal for sharing CMYK files because they are compatible with many programs and applications.
The best time to make your RGB vs. CMYK decision is before you (or your graphic designer) begin working on a piece. Switching your color mode after completing a design will alter the primary colors used in your image. Still, you may run into situations where you want to change the color mode of an image. For example, you'd need an RGB mode to CMYK mode conversion to put an image created for your blog onto a t-shirt and have the colors remain true to their source.
To change your image’s color mode using Adobe Photoshop, find the Edit drop-down and click Convert to Profile. Look for the Destination Space field, click it, then choose your new desired color mode from the drop-down. The first two options are fine for most uses. 99Design's article offers another great tip: flatten your image before changing your color mode settings to eliminate the possibility of introducing unintended elements to your design.
Choosing whether to use an RGB vs. CMYK color mode is not some nitpicky technical decision. Color accuracy directly impacts customers’ perception of your design quality and, by extension, customer satisfaction.
Think about it - if your customers receive items that look entirely different from their listing photos in your online store, do you think they’ll buy from you a second time? Whether your designs require an RGB color mode or CMYK color mode, maintaining color consistency across digital and print media is central to building customer trust. Brand loyalty improves customer retention, leading to repeat sales and improved profitability by reducing your cost to acquire new customers.
Use these strategies and tools to choose the best color mode for your product design.
Programs like Adobe Photoshop, InDesign, and Illustrator are critical investments for any designer. They offer robust color management features that help maintain color accuracy from design to print, often including a Pantone matching system and swatch libraries that feature CMYK, RGB, and Pantone colors. Using these swatches is another way to maintain design and color consistency that can help reinforce your brand.
Web-based options like Canva and Gelato’s Design Editor are great alternatives that provide many key design features at a fraction of the cost. Using Gelato’s Design Editor, you can:
Create layered designs
Import and store existing image files
Add custom shapes and text to your designs
You can hit the ground running with a premade layout or start fresh with a blank page. If you don’t have quite the right pic in your own files, tap into Gelato’s integration with Getty Images and Shutterstock to access millions of beautiful photographs and images you can use with your designs.
If you’re applying your graphic to a t-shirt, poster, or other item, you can check out a real-life mockup of your product to ensure everything looks just right. You can even see a 3D render of your finished item for products like coffee mugs.
Ordering product samples is an important milestone in your design process: the finish line is in sight when you can physically hold something you designed! And because even the most robust design tools can’t account for the many real-world variables your product will encounter, there’s no substitute for ordering and reviewing a physical sample of your product.
First and foremost, use your sample to verify the accuracy of your colors. Did everything come over the way you expected it to? Even if you’ve correctly formatted your print file with CMYK colors, remember that monitors display an RGB image, so there may be slight variances you want to address. You should also verify the accuracy of your colors under various lighting conditions.
Finally, double-check that the material you’re printing on hasn’t materially affected your colorization. If you’re printing posters, this means checking that your selected paper type and finish aren’t causing any issues. For T-shirts, confirm that you’re happy with the final design placement and that your colors are consistent with previous shirt designs.
Don’t get discouraged if you find unexpected color issues with your sample product. All this means is that you saved yourself the expense of tossing or discounting your product's entire run. Head back to your design editor and make any necessary adjustments, then order a new sample to confirm your changes did the trick.
Customer reviews are invaluable for ongoing quality control. Although the occasional glance at your product ratings can serve as a valuable pulse-check for customer satisfaction, it’s essential to read reviews and address any significant issues regularly, especially regarding color accuracy.
Believe it or not, promptly responding to a problem - whether through individual customer outreach or a change to your product based on feedback - can help improve customer loyalty more than a transaction that didn’t run into any issues. If the customer is willing, you might even consider offering them some discount or an item from your store in return for detailed feedback on what you can improve.
Making customer satisfaction a cornerstone of your brand identity is a powerful way to differentiate yourself from competitors.
RGB vs. CMYK is an important decision, but it doesn’t have to be a complicated one. If you’re selling printed products, use the CMYK color mode on your design software. Doing so ensures that your final product will be the closest possible representation of your design file and original concept. Delivering products with print colors that match what customers see online is a critical way to drive and maintain customer satisfaction with your products.
Whether you’re selling custom clothing, wall art, drinkware, phone cases, or calendars, Gelato is your ideal partner. They have the tools to bring your custom-printed designs beautifully with accurate colors. As your business grows, Gelato is ready to scale to meet your demand.
Plus, Gelato enables localized production of your on-demand products on a global scale. With 130+ local production partners in 32 countries, Gelato has the world’s largest network for production on demand.
Learn how easy selling your custom products online can be with Gelato today.
Put simply, CMYK produces superior color accuracy over RGB when printed. Printingcenterusa provides a detailed write-up of the science behind why CMYK color works best for the printing process, but to get an idea of how it works, imagine a blank sheet of printer paper.
The sheet is white because it’s currently reflecting all colors. Adding shades of black, cyan, magenta, and yellow to the paper causes some other colors to be absorbed. The brighter colors left behind are the ones we can see. This process enables designers to achieve optimum results by creating unlimited possibilities for shades of color.
In addition, unlike RGB, which depends on intense light to produce colors, CMYK colors remain true no matter the intensity of the light because it is a subtractive color model.
The 99designs blog offers several specific use cases, but in general, you should use CMYK any time you’ll physically print your project rather than viewing it on a digital screen. This not only includes custom printed products and files you create for advertising, such as posters and brochures, as well as business cards and branded stationary.
According to the Dexel blog, an RGB image is unsuitable for print because many RGB colors cannot be created using CMYK printers. These hues are considered out of the color gamut, so many commercial printers will not even accept an RGB file.
Other printers will automatically convert RGB values into their CMYK counterparts, but beware: the result will vary significantly as automated CMYK colors are duller and less detailed than their RGB counterparts.