Guest Post: What the heck is CMYK and RGB and why should you care?

Pantone Color Chart

Is it time to print a poster or banner for your next event?

I don’t know about you, but when I’ve had posters come back from the printer, they haven’t looked quite right, and I’ve often wondered why. What could I have done better? I never studied graphic design in school, so what do I have to do to make it look like it does on my computer screen? Maybe I needed to hire a graphic designer!

Today’s guest post is from Danielle Bardgette, a fabulous graphic designer with loads of talent that you should definitely hire ASAP!

Beginning Your Journey
So you’ve decided to hire a graphic designer. You know you need a website and a logo put together, maybe you have a photograph you’d like used, so you contact a designer your friend recommended. The designer meets with you and the two of you discuss your project, the timeline, audience and the visual look desired. Somewhere in the middle of the process, a color palette will be decided upon.

Print Colors versus Computer Colors
The tricky part is realizing that what your eyes see on paper vs. a computer screen is different. To accurately reproduce the color you choose, it’s important to understand this difference. Color in print uses a color mode referred to as CMYK, while color viewed on a television or computer screen uses a color mode called RGB.

RGB = Red, Green + Blue
RGB is an additive color mode, which involves light emitted directly from a source or illuminant of some sort, such as a computer monitor. RGB stands for red, green and blue. RGB colors in your website use HEX codes to be precise. Of course, depending on how much your computer monitor’s brightness or contrast is turned up or down, your colors will look different to different people. Here’s a fun color calculator to map your colors on your website.The combination of different amounts of RGB creates one color. Red, green and yellow are represented on a scale from 0 to 255. The color purple, for example, is created with 145 parts of red, 36 of green and 117 parts of black.

CMYK = Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black
These are the colors used by printers including both your home printer and those at the local print shop. Varying amounts of the four colors will achieve one color. For example green is created by using 67% of cyan, 4% of magenta, 79% yellow and 0% black. A shorthand version of this is written as C-67, M-4, Y-79 and K-0. CMYK is a subtractive color mode. Subtractive color means that as light hits an object of varying or different hues, the wavelengths are subtracted or removed and what we see is what remains – the reflected color From Contemporary Color: Theory & Use, p.92. If color must be accurately represented across print pieces choose colors from the Pantone Matching System (“PMS”). A shade of yellow, for example would be referred to as PMS 107. Pantone sells their color swatches which can be purchased from their website. (Apparently, they also subscribe to a system of astrology using Pantone colors.) Ask that your designer use PMS colors in your next design project. Once printed you can be assured that whichever printer you’re taking the project to the colors will be the same. If however, a close match is all that is needed and your budget is non-existent, using CMYK, which is sometimes referred to as process colors, is the preferred choice.

Why Should You Care?
Understanding the two color modes is important when viewing a draft of your design project or a final proof.

Say you’re designing a T-shirt for your cause. The colors are going to look different on your screen than they are on the T-shirt. Hex codes aren’t going to help your print shop. Pantone colors are. So get the closest Pantone color you can, and tell the printer to use that.

Or is your design project a business card? Take a moment to print the draft given to you by a designer. How do the colors look?

Ask the print shop to provide you with a proof.

Your work printer is good starting point to see how your colors will look, but viewing a proof from the final machine at the shop will give you the best sense of the color.

So, the moral of the story is always get a proof from the printer, no matter what it is. If you don’t take the time to understand if your photos or drawings or logos are in RGB or CMYK, you are going to get uneven results.

Interested in learning more about color? These sites will provide you with helpful information.

Danielle Bardgette is a terrific freelance graphic designer based in Austin, Texas. She graduated from Beloit College with a Bachelors of Arts degree in Art History and Austin Community College with a graphic design certificate. Her early childhood memories include lots of reading and often dancing in her parent’s living room. A tad taller now and with a handful of grey hairs, she can typically be found spending time with friends and family, doing yoga or jaunting off on camping trips.

Posted in