Question: Is RGB or CMYK better for print?

Answer: CMYK is the best colour mode for print, whereas RGB is best used for digital artwork. Both colour modes are commonly used in graphic design.

When you’re designing your beautiful business cards (or anything else), there’s an entire list of things you need to remember. It can feel so complicated, we’ve even written a blog post that you can refer to on basic design principles worth remembering. The design itself, the paper you want to use, the size the final product has to be, and even where you will eventually have everything printed (luckily, we’ve got you covered on that last point!).

For once, we’re the bearers of bad news. There’s one more thing you need to consider before you’ve got everything covered. Colour modes are a big deal. As a designer (be it professional or new to being a creative maestro), not knowing the difference between the CMYK and RGB colour modes could seriously cost you. If you’re designing for yourself, you could end up with a very unsatisfactory result. And perhaps even worse – if you’re designing for a client, you could potentially end up losing their business.

Colour plays a pretty important role in our everyday lives. We may not notice it, but it’s always there, affecting our moods and even sometimes influencing our buying choices. This is why it’s so important that you get it right – it makes a statement, and for the sake of your brand, it needs to be making the right statement. The last thing you want is for the vibrant artwork you designed to turn out dull and flat. At Printulu,we have printed thousands of projects for multiple clients, and unfortunately, we can vouch for the regularity of this mistake.

A word of caution! There are printers out there that will accept RGB files and convert them to CMYK automatically. This can and most often does result in a faded, dull colour representation in the final product. It’s best to do it yourself from the start so that you know what you’ll be getting. At Printulu, we will never convert a project to CMYK without your approval on the converted file first!

Why does this happen so often?

Many clients consider Photoshop to be the go-to design software. We definitely agree that it is a great program, but most people fail to realise that Photoshop is intended mostly for web design, image editing and various other forms of media that is meant solely for computer use. This is why Photoshop is usually set to RGB mode by default.

RGB – What is it, and when to use it

RGB Colour Spectrum

Copyright: alancotton / 123RF Stock Photo

The term RGB stands for the three base colours red, green and blue. Together, these three colours build a spectrum serving as a reference value for all the various colour shades. Due to the different possible ratios, the RGB colour spectrum allows for a wide range of different compositions – in fact, it allows for 16.8 million different compositions! The RGB spectrum is an additive colour model. This means that the primary colours are added together to create a much wider spectrum of colour. Additive colours (RGB) are used for screensIt’s used exclusively in the digital design industry because it represents the same colors used in computer screens, TV screens, as well as mobile device screens.

The CMYK colour spectrum and printed files

CMYK Colour Spectrum

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The CMYK colour system is most commonly referred to as a four colour process. This is because it uses four main colours, namely Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Key (Black). Black, in this case, is referred to as key because it is used in the key plate which is responsible for adding the contrast and the detail for the final image. Black is also used because the three other colours cannot produce black themselves when added together. 

Unlike the RGB color system, CMYK is a subtractive color model. As hinted in the previous section, CMYK is the recommended color system for any material that will be printed. This includes business cards, brochures, letterheads, and any other business collateral. The main characteristic of subtractive colours is that the more colours you mix, the darker the results are.

CMYK is used for offset printing – both at the small printer at home and the big printing machine at the copy shop – but also in online printing.The process is as follows: The four single colours are subsequently printed on the paper – each with a specific ratio. In doing so all possible shades can be achieved. Theoretically speaking, more than 4 billion colour shades can be achieved using a CMYK colour spectrum. However, only a small portion of it can be displayed and printed. As a matter of fact, the CMYK colour spectrum is much smaller than RGB. 

Applying CMYK to your artwork

Now that we’ve established why it is so important to convert your artworks to CMYK accurately before sending them off to the printers, let’s get into the how.

The tricky part is getting the artwork ready for print. Nowadays, most design software is set to the RGB color system. If you’re designing for the web, that’s fine, but if your project is intended for print, you need to switch from RGB to CMYK.

Here’s how to do it in the Adobe programs which are considered the industry standard.

  • In Photoshop, click Image > Mode > CMYK Color.
  • In Illustrator, click File > Document Color Mode > CMYK Color.
  • In InDesign, click Window > Color, then click the dropdown button in the upper right corner and select CMYK.

However, simply converting RGB into CMYK is not as simple as it seems due to the fact that the same shade may not exist in both schemes. In this context, severe deviances can arise. For these reasons, Printulu recommends to set up the artwork properly using a CMYK color spectrum from the beginning. Nevertheless, pictures or other elements in RGB can be converted using a specific editing software. Yet, this process entails the risk of losing color data, which may cause deviations in color. Please note that only a calibrated screen can show potential deviations accurately.

But what happens if you need to design for both print and web for the same project? In that case, it’s recommended to start with the CMYK model and design all the print assets first. Then, switch to the RGB model and design the assets for the web. Doing so will give you a closer match in colors as RGB has a wider range of colors which may turn out quite pale when you convert them to CMYK.


All this talk of conversions and spectrums may seem confusing, but in reality it is pretty straight forward and simple once you get the hang of it. As long as you’re aware of the differences and keep them in mind while designing your artwork, you can’t go wrong. Do it right from the very beginning, and you’ll be able to ensure that you take the necessary steps to avoid catastrophe.

Remember that Photoshop is wonderful, but if you intend to use your design for large printed media (e.g. billboards), Adobe Illustrator or a similar vector-based application might be the best option.

Either way, it’s always best to ask your trusted printer to check your artwork for you before ordering a full run. We at Printulu are always willing to give you advice on what will be best for your artworks. If you’re still unsure, try out our professional design services. We’re always happy to help!

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