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Print basics: RGB vs. CMYK


The colors on your website don’t quite match your business cards. Your latest flyers are clashing with your trade booth banners. And your promotional video is looking washed out on your client’s monitor.

What happened?

First impressions are 94% design related, so a little color knowledge can make a big difference to your bottom line.


If you’ve ever replaced a color toner cartridge or adjusted your display properties, you’ve probably noticed different abbreviations for how to describe colors. RGB and CMYK are the most frequently cited, but there are dozens of others. It can feel pretty technical. After all, red is red, right? So why do we need different ways of describing them? And why do those colors end up looking different on our monitors, printers, and smartphones?

The key to understanding color is to realize that all the different shades that we can recognize, from vermillion to periwinkle, are actually mixed from just a few primary colors. For example, red plus yellow creates orange, while yellow plus blue creates green. So by defining that mixture, we can define precise colors. RGB and CMYK are really just descriptions of how to mix colors.

RGB stands for Red, Green, and Blue, while CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and a Key color (most often black).

As for why there’s more than one standard, the process for mixing colors is fundamentally different between printing and monitors. First, let’s tackle printing.

Printing color – CMYK (“subtractive” color)

Printed material absorbs light. Just like when mixing paints, if you mix all of your colors together you’re putting more ink on the page.

That ink absorbs more and more different spectrums of light until you ultimately get black. You can think of printed colors as “subtractive”

That is, as you add colors (or ink), it visually reduces the color reflected off the page, and leaves you with a muddy brown or black when they’re all mixed together.

Projecting color – RGB (“additive” color)

In contrast to printing, monitors and other electronic screens are light sources. Instead of absorbing some spectrums of light and reflecting others, computer monitors and TVs actively project light towards the viewer.

You can think of projected colors as “additive.” As you add more and more colors on a monitor, you add more light, creating brighter colors.




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Designing For Print vs. The Web

Designing for print media versus designing for the web can be a completely different experience. To better understand these differences, the two can be compared in major topic areas:


When beginning a project, it is important to think about the experience of your audience, which differs greatly between print and web design. At the most basic level, the web is interactive and print pieces are usually not.

In print, you are trying to get your audience to stay on a page long enough to get a marketing message across. You are often faced with a limited area in which to achieve this, such as a one-page magazine ad. In some cases, you are trying to catch their attention and have them dive deeper into your product, as with a book cover or the first page of a brochure. One of the benefits of print design is that you are dealing with a physical product, so physical properties such as texture and shape can help you achieve your design goals. As an example, paper companies will take out magazine ads printed on their own paper, allowing the audience to feel the weight and texture of their product.

On the web, you are generally trying to keep your audience on a specific website for as long as possible. The amount of pages to work with can be unlimited, so you ‘tease’ the audience with snippets of content to entice them into clicking further into your site.


Both print and web design require clear and effective layout. In both, the overall goal is the same…use elements of design (shapes, lines, colors, type, etc) to present content to your audience.

The differences start in the available space to create your design:

In print:

  • Your space is generally measured in millimeters.
  • You can be dealing with anything from a business card to a highway billboard.
  • You know the space allowed from the start and that your finished product will look the same to everyone who sees it.
  • You must have bleed and safety areas to guarantee print results (learn more about this in the “printing process” section of this site).

On the web:

  • You are measuring your space in pixels.
  • You are faced with a challenge…designing your sites to look the best on all size monitors and at all monitor resolutions.
  • A consistent design, with consistent navigation (always in the same place) is key to keeping people on your site.

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