CMYK VS. RGB - About Color Systems


What do all these letters mean?

As a small business owner, a print buyer, or a designer, it is important to know when to use the RGB or CMYK color systems. Understanding the difference between these two can not only save time on your project, but it can also help to save money. Submitting colors in their proper color systems helps the prepress department not be concerned about design/color mistakes and will begin the print process that much sooner.

So what exactly do “RGB” and “CMYK” stand for?

Red, Green, Blue & Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Key (Black)

These color systems largely deal with two different environments: when dealing with web or digital screens (computers, phones, TV, etc.), RGB is the system of choice. With printed material (cards, inserts, posters, etc.), CMYK is the color system that should be used.

Why is this you may ask?


RGB is an additive, protected light color system. This can be confusing, I know, but imagine starting with a black surface and adding colors of light to it (i.e. red, green, and blue). Have you noticed RGB print material looks darker than it is displayed on a digital screen? This is because your digital screens mix red, green, and blue display light to produce the bright colors that you see on websites, phones and televisions.  Without the display light being emitted by screens, RGB colors will look darker on print material.

In other words, red, green, and blue are the “primary” colors of white light. All three colors will result in white; the absence of all three will produce black.


CMYK is a subtractive color system and absorbs light.  When starting with a white surface, such as a white piece of paper, and adding more inks to it, you will notice a darker tone of color. Less colors mixed together, especially without a high percentage of black, will create a lighter color. In comparison, adding more red, green and blue together in the RGB color system will create a lighter color.  

Final Tip

When creating a design, be mindful of which color system you’re using and which color system the project needs to be completed in. Whether using an Adobe product or any other design software, take note of the program’s default color system and look at a proof of the colors (*View -> *Proof Colors) to ensure the accuracy of the colors.

Curious about which color system to use for your project?  Contact Anderberg Print for guidance with your project and we’ll make sure it turns out exactly as you dreamed!