RGB vs. CMYK: A Guide to Color Systems for Designers

What they are, and how to keep your colors bright and vivid in your designs.

Color plays an important role in everyday life. It can affect your mood, your impression of a brand, and even influence your buying choices. Getting the color right in your designs is crucial if you want to convey the right message.

But as a designer, you should also know which color system to use if you want your design to look as intended. Knowing which color system to use will be a lot easier when you know how your design will be used.

There are two major color systems in the digital and print design industries: the RGB color system and the CMYK color system. In this article, we’ll explain the difference between the two and show you how you can easily switch between them in Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign.

In short:

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

What is RGB?

Copyright: alancotton / 123RF Stock Photo

RGB stands for Red, Green, and Blue. It’s used exclusively in the digital design industry because it represents the same colors used in computer screens, TV screens, as well as mobile device screens.

It’s an additive color system which means that the primary colors are added together in various combinations to produce a much wider spectrum of colors. These colors are produced by blending light itself by superimposing the red, green, and blue light beam. Without any intensity, each of those colors will be perceived as black, while full intensity will make them appear white.

It’s also worth mentioning that different intensities of each color will produce the hue of a particular color. The resulting color will also appear more or less saturated depending on the difference between the most and the least intensive color.

When should you use the RGB color system?

As a general rule of thumb, the RGB color system should be used only in digital designs, most commonly when designing for the web. This includes designing websites and imagery and graphics for use on websites and social media.

If you want to use those designs in print, you will have to convert it to the CMYK color system.

What is CMYK?

Source: Wikimedia Commons

CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key (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 color system is most commonly referred to as the four-color process because it uses four different colors to produce different hues. The black color here is used because the other three colors combined cannot produce a fully saturated black.

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

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

When should you use CMYK?

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

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

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

Nowadays, most design software is set to the RGB color system. If you’re designing for the web, that’s fine, but if your project is intended for print, you need to switch from RGB to CMYK.

Here’s how to do it in the Adobe programs which are considered the industry standard.

  • In Photoshop, click Image > Mode > CMYK Color.
  • In Illustrator, click File > Document Color Mode > CMYK Color.
  • In InDesign, click Window > Color, then click the dropdown button in the upper right corner and select CMYK.

But what happens if you need to design for both print and web for the same project? In that case, it’s recommended to start with the CMYK model and design all the print assets first. Then, switch to the RGB model and design the assets for the web. Doing so will give you a closer match in colors as RGB has a wider range of colors which may turn out quite pale when you convert them to CMYK.

Watch: RGB vs. CMYK explainer

Where to find CMYK and RGB templates and resources?

Knowing the difference between RGB and CMYK is crucial if you’re a designer. However, designing from scratch may not always be feasible. That’s where various templates and resource packs come in handy.

But, even if you’re using a graphic pack or stock item, you still need to make sure they were designed in the correct color system, unless you want to spend time converting them and correcting possible mistakes yourself.

Thankfully, marketplaces such as GraphicRiver and Envato Elements have plenty of stock items that utilize the corresponding color systems. Below are a few examples that might just save you a few hours on your next project.

1. Ultimate Mega Branding Pack

Designing a complete branding identity is no small undertaking but you can save yourself a few hours getting the dimensions and guides right by using a set of pre-made templates. Then, all you have to worry about is translating the brand vision onto the printed material. This pack includes the most important brand collaterals designed in CMYK color mode which makes them ready for print.

2. Facebook Post Banners

Social media networks are notorious for changing the recommended images all the time. Instead of recreating the template each time, your time would be better spent adding the visual image of the brand to a premade template. This set of banners comes in two sizes, each of them designed in the RGB color mode so they can look great on the web.

3. Cetho Business Proposal

This business proposal template is perfect when you need to design a business proposal for a client. The dimensions and the CMYK color mode is already in place so all you have to do is replace the visual elements with those used by your client’s brand.

4. Mixed Flat Icons Bundle

Icons are always useful in a variety of designs. This bundle has more than a thousand icons and they are all designed using RGB. The set also comes in AI, EPS, PSD (Vector Shapes), SVG & PNG formats and includes 42 different categories of icons such as transport, food and drinks, weather, clothes, holidays, and more.

Final thoughts

Using the correct color mode for your projects saves you time and it also helps your final project to look as intended whether you use it on the web or in print. You’ll also be able to spot any potential issues with your design and correct them before sending them off to the client.

Remember to always check the color mode in your design software and adjust it accordingly as well as asking your client for the intended use of the final product. And if you need graphic resources, don’t forget to stop by our marketplace and search for templates that can help you cut back on design time dramatically.


A question on our community forums inspired this article. Head to the forums to connect with other designers! 

About the Author Brenda Stokes Barron

Brenda Stokes Barron is a professional writer and blogger and The Digital Inkwell is her personal brand. You can often find her typing furiously at her local Starbucks.