CMYK vs RGB: What’s best for digital printing?

Clients looking for printing advice often ask us about the differences between CMYK and RGB, so we’ve compiled this useful guide and discussion of the two colour methods to help you make the decision on the best way forward for your specific print job.

What is CMYK?

CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black (the K actually stands for Key). CMYK is a colour mode specifically intended for materials that are designed to be printed.

What is CMYK

If you’ve ever had to change the toner in your office printer, you’ll probably recognise this term. Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black are the four pigments modern digital printers use and combine to create printed images.

These CMYK colours absorb light and create colour through what is called subtractive mixing. This means that the printer starts with white, and then reduces the brightness by layering ink to create the intended colour. If you were to put the maximum amount of all four colours onto a page, you’d end up with black.

What is RGB?

RGB is the more recognisable of the two acronyms. It stands for the primary colours: Red, Green, and Blue. This is the colour mode in which screens – like the one you’re reading this on now – display colour.

What is RGB

Smartphones, computers and anything else with a display show colour by combining light. In the case of the screen you’re looking at, it generates images by combining thousands of pixels, each composed of three sub-pixels coloured red, green, and blue. The colour of each pixel in an image is created by lighting these sub-pixels to different degrees.

This process is known as additive mixing. Red, green and blue are added to a black screen to create the intended colour. If you added the maximum of all of these colours together, you’d end up with white.

What’s the difference between RGB and CMYK?

Having read this far, you should have already noticed a few key differences between RGB and CMYK. RGB is additive, while CMYK is subtractive. RGB is designed for screens, while CMYK is intended for print.

Another key difference is the number of possible combinations each colour mode offers – or put simply, how many colours each mode can make.

CMYK is measured in percentages – each colour is made up by adding somewhere between 0% and 100% of each of the four options to the mix. That means CMYK has a range of 4 x 100 or a possible 10 million different colours.

Not bad! But that’s not as good as RGB, which has three colours each with a range of 0 to 255. That’s a total range of 3 x 256, which means a possibility of over 16 million different colours.

This means RGB is capable of generating millions of colours that CMYK simply can’t replicate.

Which is best for digital printing?


CMYK Artwork To CMYK Print

RBG Artwork To CMYK Print


Well, if you’re designing something for the screen, RGB is certainly the way to go. What you see when creating your design is exactly what someone viewing it on their phone, computer or TV will see. And you can be as vibrant as you want, making full use of RGB’s 16 million colour spectrum.

However, if you design in RGB and then print your design out, you might get a nasty surprise. Your shiny new design may look dull, washed-out, or discoloured. That’s because CMYK’s more limited colour spectrum means it can’t replicate in real life exactly what RGB can produce onscreen.

So, as you might have guessed by now, there’s no clear winner in the battle of RGB vs CMYK. Which colour mode is right for you all depends on the intended use of your design. If you’re creating a design intended to be viewed on a screen – whether that’s a phone or a digital billboard – then you should stick with RGB. However, if you want to see your design brought to life in print, then using a CMYK colour profile from the outset will ensure that the finished product accurately matches your initial design.

Further reading – Screen printing versus digital printing.

Get in touch with Borney UK today to discuss your screen or digital print requirements in more detail. We’ll be happy to discuss which of the different print techniques best suit your requirements.