RGB vs CMYK Colors: Why Does the Color Output Look Different on Computer Monitors Compared to Print?


    You might be a graphic designer or have hired a designer for work to be done. Either way, it’s important to know the difference between RGB and CMYK for your project. They are both classified as color modes and knowing what one you are going to use for each level of the design is extremely beneficial (regardless of your role). One is optimal for print work and the other is better for digital work that you would see on a computer monitor. Let’s take a better look at RGB versus CMYK and what mode is ideal for your project’s output. 


    RGB stands for the colors, red, green, and blue. This mode is optimized for digital or computerized images that will be displayed on different screens (like computer monitors, tablets, TVs, smartphones, and cameras). The source of light that any machine gives off makes any color you need by combining red, green, and blue and shifting the depth or intensity. This is called “additive mixing.” All the colors start as blackness, then red, green, and blue light is joined on top of one another to lighten and form the exact color you want. On the other hand, if added together with identical intensity, it constructs the color white. 

    While using RGB, designers play around with the three colors to adjust shading, saturation, and how vibrant the pigment is. Since this is created digitally, the designer shapes how the screen’s light displays the color that is desired. What types of things can you create that will utilize the RGB method the best? 

    • Application and Web Design (graphics, buttons, icons)
    • Social Media (profile photos, backgrounds, post images)
    • Branding (digital ads, logos)
    • Visuals (video, website photos, infographics)

    The best file formats to use for the RGB color mode are JPEGs, PNGs, GIFs, and PSDs. You shouldn’t use formats like EPS, TIFF, BMP, or PDF when working with RGB. When using this color mode, you have over sixteen million color possibilities.


    Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key/Black are what CMYK stands for and is the color mode used with printed items. “Subtractive mixing” is when printing equipment designs images by joining CMYK colors in differing proportions using physical ink. All the colors begin as white, and each tier of ink decreases the original luster to design the color wanted. If all the colors were mixed up it would result in black. 

    You use CMYK for any design project that will be printed physically and not seen on a screen. This mode gives you a more precise outcome if you need to use paint or ink. What types of things do you use CMYK for?

    • Advertising (flyers, posters, car wraps, billboards, brochures)
    • Branding (signs, business cards, stationery, stickers)
    • Essential (menus, packaging for products)
    • Merch (branded clothing, promo, and swag)

    The best file formats for CMYK are AI, PDFs, and EPS. However, it should be noted that it’s best to ask the printer what file format they prefer. There are sixteen thousand color possibilities when using CMYK and the file sizes are usually larger.

    Custom-printed products like custom feather flags are often printed utilizing CMYK colors. When ordering custom-printed products, it’s always best to specify a PMS (Pantone Matching System) color whenever possible to avoid having colors appear differently on the computer monitor compared to the finished printed product. If you are looking to purchase Custom Feather Flags, consider Flagdom at:

    Is It Possible to Physically Print Using RGB?

    Yes, you can print things using RGB color mode, however, the colors won’t be accurate and there will be noticeable differences. You can convert an RGB illustration and print it as CMYK, but it might not give you the results you want. So, if you need to design something that will be physically printed, use CMYK for the ideal outcome.

    Most professional designers will use software programs like Illustrator, Photoshop, and InDesign. If you are unsure whether your file is in CMYK or RGB you can easily check using any of those applications. 

    For Illustrator, the Documents tab will have the mode on it in parentheses. You can also find out by going to the File tab and then to Document Color Mode. 

    In Photoshop, the mode will also be listed on the Documents tab, or you can go to Image and then to Mode. 

    The program InDesign will have you go from Window to Color to Color. You will then be able to see if the color mode is RGB or CMYK. 

    Final Thoughts 

    Selecting the correct color mode for your design project is essential because it specifically impacts the final result. What’s great about these two, color modes are that it’s an easy choice depending on what you want. The question you need to ask yourself is whether you are designing for print or screen. The answer will always be RGB for screen viewing and CMYK for print materials. Following this guideline will ensure that your projects will come out looking amazing and accurate.

    You also have more control over how your finished design will look when you know how to manipulate the colors in each mode. The longer you use RGB or CMYK, the better you will be at assessing how your image file will transform into your final project. Practice makes perfect, but if you want completely accurate results, use a professional designer to ensure you get exactly what you want. A graphic designer should be well-versed in the RGB and CMYK color modes. It will make them more efficient and helps cut down on any color issues. If you are the client in this situation, knowing about both modes will help you understand and converse with your designer more effectively.

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