If you are designing or printing anything colour, you might be familiar with the two most common digital colour modes: RGB and CMYK. To keep things simple, all you need to know is: RGB is used for digital communications, like television or websites and CMYK is used for print, like brochures. Pretty simple, eh? Let’s get a little more technical…


RGB stands for the colors red, green, and blue and recognised in the design field as primary colours. RGB is what your monitor, TV or mobile device uses to send colours to your eye. It combines the red, green, and blue pixels to create a whole range of different colors. It is sometimes referred to as an additive colour process. Most design programs work in both colour modes, however all Microsoft programs work in RGB so attention needs to be paid when printing anything out of these programs as your colours are likely to change when printed.


CMYK stands for the colours cyan, magenta, yellow and black – which is the color space used in the world of printing. It’s also known as a subtractive colour process. Cyan, magenta and yellow inks are printed together to create thousands of other colors. Black ink is not actually black, but a combination of the above colours to create a sort of ‘fake’ black.

Diagram explaining colour theory

Neither system of colour is perfect (neither can actually reproduce all the available colours in nature), but both are good enough to look very realistic to the human eye. There’s no need to know all the technical jargon to be a good visual communicator, but knowing the difference between CMYK and RGB is a good start.

If you’re working on computer monitors, creating websites, you will be using the RGB colour space because that is how digital devices display colour. You don’t have to worry about CMYK on the internet or online media, but once you start printing is when it matters. Most programs these days can convert between RGB and CMYK. Please keep in mind whenever you see a cmyk image on your screen, this is an approximation because it is actually being displayed in RGB so you need to be careful when matching any colours on your screen.

Keep in mind that not all colours you see on screen can be printed in CMYK. This surprises people when they first discover it. But certain colours like very bright, bold colours can only be approximated in CMYK in a somewhat dulled version. That’s not to say the colour can never be printed, it’s just very complicated, needing either different paper stocks or additional colours of ink.


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