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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.