Understand the Difference between RGB and CMYK

What’s the difference between RGB and CMYK?

At some point, every business owner will either need to design marketing materials themselves or hire someone to do it. After all, if you have a business, you’re going to need things like a website, business cards, and sales brochures.

Regardless of whether you do the design work yourself or hire a professional, you should know the basics of color space; otherwise, you might end up with brand colors that don’t match or appear different from what you expected.

What is color space?

Color space is a system of organizing colors so that they can be reproduced anywhere. For instance, it’s important that the specific shade of red you’re using for a company logo in New York is the same one that is used on your domestically printed materials in Australia.

“Make my logo sort of red with a little bit of blue” just won’t cut it at the print shop. This is why letters and numbers that correspond with exact colors (known as color space) are used.

Different systems of color space are implemented depending on the design medium and technologies used to reproduce the color. Two of the most commonly used color spaces are RGB and CMYK. This begs the question, “What’s the difference between RGB and CMYK?”


RGB stands for red, green, and blue. If you come across the term sRGB, that standard is used in reference to anything that emits light via a screen or monitor, such as websites or videos.

Each pixel on your screen is made of three red, green, and blue subpixels that are turned on, off, or dimmed to produce the colors and images you see on a larger scale. What happens when all three colors (red, green, and blue) are added together? You see white, which is why white is in the center of the color wheel.


CMYK stands for cyan, magenta, yellow, and key (which is equivalent to black, in this case). This standard is used with anything that reflects light from a printed surface, such as business cards or billboards.

When using CMYK, a printer begins with a white sheet of paper. As the paper rolls through the printer, tiny dots of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black are layered together to produce the final colors and images that you see.

Why don’t RGB and CMYK colors look the same?

Here’s where things can get confusing. Imagine that you are designing a print brochure on your computer using CMYK. This means that you’re designing something to be printed in CMYK, but your monitor is displaying it in RGB.

Why does this matter? RGB and CMYK are different color spaces, and individual colors don’t always translate perfectly between the two systems. When you print the brochure, the printed color may appear slightly different on a sheet of paper than what you see on the computer monitor.


Now that you know more about color space and the distinction between RGB and CMYK, here are three tips to use when designing marketing material for your business:

  1. If you’re designing something for digital media, use RGB. If you’re designing for printed materials, choose CMYK.
  2. Always get a test print done before ordering a large print job. That way, you can go back and adjust your CMYK colors (if necessary) to perfect them before doing your final print run.
  3. Standardize your RGB and CMYK colors for all essential brand elements (like your logo) so they look the same on a computer screen and printed documents. This way, you can tell your designer or printer exactly what colors to use.

Consistent colors for consistent branding

You might have painstakingly selected your hues and coordinated your brand colors to evoke emotions from your audience; however, if your colors appear differently on your website than they do on your business card, that may raise some eyebrows. Combine the information above with these brand design tips so that you can proudly display your company’s colors online and in print.


Aaron von Frank

Cofounder and CEO at GrowJourney.com, a USDA certified organic heirloom garden seed subscription service. Writer at TyrantFarms.com, Edible Upcountry Magazine, and other media outlets.

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