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Coughlin’s Guide to Color – Designing in RGB vs CMYK

Posted on August 12, 2022
Written by David Nisley
Tags: Printing

An important part of marketing is making sure the company’s colors and graphics look consistent.

We’ve been fine-tuning the process for over 130 years just so we can make your project the best one yet. We understand that our nerdy passion for paper and ink isn’t what you’re thinking about on a regular basis. That’s okay! To help ensure your project looks the way you intended, take some time to learn about color.

Coughlin Printing’s team is obsessed with color. The graphic artists care about its visual impact and emotional appeal. The print production team cares about a client’s logo on a brochure looking the same as the one used on digital media created by our website designers. Here, “red” is never just “red”.

An important part of marketing is making sure the company’s colors and graphics look consistent. This is achieved by determining which color space is needed at the very beginning of the project. There are two options: RGB (red, green, blue) uses light and adds values to create different colors. This is used for digital designs seen on a backlit screen like your monitor or phone. CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black/key) is subtractive and removes values to create different colors. This is used for print designs which reflect light, rather than project it.

When you design something on your computer in Photoshop, your screen is creating the colors using the RGB color space. When you print that gorgeous design on your inkjet printer the printer is using the CMYK color space. The reason they often look different is because of the different ways colors are presented in each color space.

Even this graphic would look different and less vibrant if it was printed on a piece of paper. 

Every color, whether it’s on a screen or a paper product, is made up by combining other colors. Graphic designers must take into account how each combination reflects light and interacts with other colors. Because of how each medium creates color or causes it to be perceived, the vibrant green you fell in love with when you saw a digital mockup of a logo will look very different when it’s printed on a business card, applied as a decal on a company vehicle, or embroidered on a uniform.

There are a lot of colors that can be perceived by the human eye! However, not all of them can be reproduced by either or both of the RGB and CMYK color spaces.

This graphic shows the range and limits of each color space. See that overlapping space shared by both? That’s a graphic designer’s dream.

“I loved my logo when the graphic designer showed it to me on their screen! Why does it look different now?!”

Here are two reasons colors look differently, depending on where you’re looking.

  1. If a design was created in RGB, the printing press needs to convert it to colors available in the CMYK color space – and not every color is available. The printer will try to choose a color that is as close as possible, but there’s not always an exact match.
  2. Even designs created in RGB with the full intention of existing solely online can look different from one screen to another! Every single device has brightness and contrast settings that can be customized by the user, which will change how colors appear.

What does all of this mean for a business owner?

It starts at the beginning! Choose colors that can be used consistently. Work with a graphic designer to utilize colors that translate well to both color spaces. Consider all of the places that your company’s colors will be featured. Presenting your official colors in a uniform manner – across both print and digital – makes it easier for people to recognize your mission, services, and attention to detail.

It is also important to consider the common interpretations of colors. A bright bubblegum pink would work for one client, while feeling extremely out-of-place for another.

Creating quality files with colors optimized for the correct color space will set you up for success. Do not depend on a screenshot of an old Facebook profile picture! Choose colors carefully and strategically. Making good choices now will help guide future conversations about branding and take the guesswork out of other decisions.

Making life easier? That sounds like a good decision.



Shameless plug: Coughlin’s team of artists, website designers, printers, and marketing strategists are ready to obsess over the details of your next project. Contact us today so we can make something awesome together.