John’s Print Tip of the Month: using RGB Vs CMYK print colour modes

RGB or CMYK colour modes are required to print colour used in print, web design, games and apps, point of sale, direct mail and just about anything the designer or company makes. Here is John’s Tip of the Month for you to check your document colour mode setup is correct for the intended print function.

As a basic rule, anything that is digital should be RGB, and anything intended for print, should be CMYK. Why is this the standard? Different mediums need different setups, and as they all go through the computer today, the colour modes need to be setup to meet these print or output requirements. This quick reference from shows a quick way to determine what to do:

Coleface RGB vs CMYK

But if you are interested to know more…

CMYK stands for Cyan, Yellow, Magenta and Black. These four colours make up what is called a ‘subtractive’ colour mode, because when they are all added together, it makes black.

RGB stands for Red, Green, and Blue – these light spectrum colours, when mixed together at full opacity, make white – so they are called ‘additive’ for this reason.

A bit of history on the CMYK printing press setup

in the past, each pass on the printer was used to spread Cyan, Magenta, Yellow or Black ink to make the text and image compositions to match the print layout, made by a metal plate. The black plate was called the “key” plate because it usually defined key artistic or visual details. One after another would be completed, with each colour drying before the next one was added.

The same process is pretty much used today, with the exception of spot colours, made by using Pantone-branded ‘special’ colour mixes that match a particular colour, tone or shade. Many large corporations use a spot colour to identify their brand, such as ‘Cadbury’ purple P2685C (yes they do own that Pantone colour!!!!!)

RGB = what we see

Isaac Newton discovered and mapped out the modern colour spectrum and to this day, RGB is the colour spectrum we still view through our eyes. The computer monitor, more or less, is equivalent to this colour spectrum, which is why when you export PDFs, the colour will probably match what you see onscreen, but if you print it in the office printer, it will not.other factors affect the display of RGB colour on a monitor, including age of display device, quality, colour temperature and lighting. there are ways of adjusting your monitors to accommodate a more colour correct screen and many professional designers and printers do this on a regular basis.

Why do colours change between RGB and CMYK?

The CMYK colour range is also smaller in scope than RGB, although our human eye can only view certain parts of the spectrum also. When printing from RGB to CMYK and then onto a printer, pixels compress, colours darken, flatten and absorb different ranges of colour in print and also, the type of paper and amount of ink affects the output.

When printing the other way around there is less problems because the pixels interpret themselves into the additional space.

Document setup

Using Adobe Indesign CC as an example of software that can prepare your colour setup, see below for the three options they provide for the user at the very start of the process: when you open a new file. Right under the Document Preset, see the ‘Intent’ setting. It is here that you select either Print, Web or Digital Publishing options, which then set your colour mode.

  • Print: CMYK colour mode
  • Web: RGB colour mode
  • Digital Publishing: RGB colour mode




The next instalment of John’s Print Tip of the Month will go further into exporting your document for the correct print destination or printer.

So if you are a small business, creative agency or Association and need help printing, please consider printing it with Coleface – contact us now.


If you liked this post, please comment below, share it, and click on the FOLLOW buttons to get more! If you love printing, get the latest email updates by subscribing here. Sydney print management experts Coleface Print Management and Production provide advice and support for our clients on all aspects of printing and production such as digital, large format and offset printing, point of sale, packaging and mail management. Written by @Olsonwells.