CMYK and RGB for non-designers

What the *bleep* are all these numbers the designer gave me? (Finally deciphering and using all of those Mood Board color codes!)

CMYK: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black (Key)

CMYK (cyan-magenta-yellow-black) color mode represents the four basic inks used in standard digital print reproduction. To create a full color image, combinations of these inks are applied to the print surface. A color’s CMYK code summarizes the amount of each ink used to equal a specific hue.

When your designer provides a print-ready CMYK file, it’s been converted into printer ink values. If you view a CMYK file on a mobile device or monitor, it’s not unusual for the colors of the graphics to look inaccurate. Understandably, this can be cause for a bit of alarm, at first. Rest assured the printed outcome from a CMYK file will reproduce correctly.

RGB: Red, Green, Blue

RGB (red-green-blue) is a bundle of colored light that combines to project a given shade. Each teeny tiny pixel of the device display you are reading this article on is shining a red, green, and blue light and producing the colors you see. The value or amount of each light is the number in an RGB code.

For pieces intended for websites, television, social media, or cell phone apps, RGB color mode is used to create a perfectly displayed, electronic outcome. You are able to print an RGB image or file, but the colors will never be quite as your designer intended.

HEX codes used for online colors are a direct translation of the RGB integers (#RRGGBB).

Pantone Color Swatches

You’ve probably noticed that TVs, monitors, tablets, and cell phones can all display color a little bit differently. Ink jet and laser printers are each calibrated uniquely, too.

Herein lies the root of a designer’s pain and the hiccup to brand color consistency.

The best way to reproduce a true color is by using premixed Pantone inks and a traditional, offset printing process. This customized method of printing is more expensive than quick digital prints and can require printing larger quantities to be cost-effective. However, it is likely the only way your client will see a perfect representation of your brand colors. Left to electronic or digital means, we can only get close to the right result.

Trivia BONUS for the extra nerdy

CMYK is a subtractive color mode, meaning that cyan, magenta, and yellow together will produce the full absence of color: BLACK. RGB is an additive color mode, which means equal amounts of pure red, green, and blue light will create the combined presence of all colors: WHITE.

Nikki Takahashi

Nikki Takahashi is a brand designer and strategist who has helped over 300 entrepreneurs embrace and amplify what makes them unique. Nikki is founder and CEO of Fetching Finn Inc. and host of Square Peg Entrepreneur, a podcast featuring industry disruptors and mavericks in business.