As an online store owner, you surely at some point have experienced the difference between your design and the final product print colors. For customers, the end product they receive must meet or exceed their expectations, and sometimes, the color difference can be frustrating. Whose fault is it? The truth is, it’s nobody’s fault. The fact of the matter is, there are two color modes: RGB and CMYK.
RGB vs. CMYK: What Is the Difference?
Both CMYK and RGB are color mixing modes in graphic design. In short, RGB is best for digital work – the ones you see on your screen and CMYK for print products. However, it’s essential to fully understand the mechanics behind each to optimize your designs and understand why the colors you see on your screen and the print colors on the product don’t always match.
What Is RGB
RGB, which stands for Red, Green, and Blue, is the color space for digital imagery. RGB color model is used for displaying digital work on any screen.
As you might know, a light source within a device creates any color you need by mixing the colors red, green, and blue in various proportions, and this process is known as an additive color model, where all colors start as a blackness, and then RGB lights are added on top of each other to make it brighter and create the desired pigment. Pure white is created by mixing red, green, and blue light at equal intensity. Colors perceived in additive models are the result of transmitted light.
Aspects like vibrancy, saturation, and shading can be controlled by adjusting any of the RGB colors. Because this process is all digital, you can manipulate how the light on the screen reveals to create the desired color.
When Is RGB Used?
In short: all things digital: any visual content that includes videos and photos; web and app design, icons, graphics, buttons; branding – designing logos, ads, banners, etc., as well as social media-related products like profile pictures, cover photos, images for posts and others.
To effectively and efficiently represent colors on your screen, practically every computer and mobile device on the planet uses the RGB color system. Red, Green, Blue are coded in computer-understandable language – using bits. Due to technical limitations, the RGB color gamut (the maximum range of colors for color space) is smaller than what your eye can see.
What Is CMYK
CMYK, which stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Key (Black), is the color model for tangible, printed materials, or shortly – CMYK is print colors. In this case, the printer creates images by mixing CMYK colors to varying degrees with ink instead of digitally as it is with RGB. This is called subtractive mixing. If with RGB, all colors started as black, with CMYK, they begin as white, and each layer of ink decreases the brightness to create the desired color. When all the colors are mixed together, they produce black darkness. Colors perceived in subtractive models are the result of reflected light.
When Is CMYK Used?
CMYK is used for any design project that gets physically printed instead of viewed on a screen. So, if you need to recreate the design you see on screen with ink, the CMYK color model will provide you with more accurate results. This includes all things branding: business cards, stickers, custom stationery, store signs, etc. Also, everything you can imagine related to advertising: posters, flyers, billboards, booklets, and then something close to our home: merchandise. T-shirts, custom totes, hats, and other apparel and accessories are created using the CMYK color mode.
Which One Should You Use?
First of all, CMYK guarantees a more reliable reproduction from what you see on screen versus the final print. When you convert RGB files to CMYK to print on a four-color printer (which is the absolute majority of printers), there generally are shifts in color. These shifts usually are minor, but they can still be an issue, especially if your design project is color-sensitive. Similarly, if you were to upload a CMYK image to the internet, you may also see color shifts.
File Types and Specs
PNG file type:
- Supports RGB and sRGB Color Modes
- Supports transparent background
- Works for apparel, all other products
JPEG file type:
- Supports RGB, sRGB, and CMYK Color Modes
- Doesn’t support transparent background
- Works for everything is transparent background is not necessary
For all products for which you want to have a transparent background, such as apparel, you will have to use a PNG file. Unfortunately, PNG does not support the CMYK color profile. However, that’s not a big problem because you can design the CMYK color mode’s image to reflect the CMYK color gamut. This way, you will have a little discrepancy between what you see on screen and on the actual print.
When a printing company says that they print using RGB, what they mean is that they accept RGB format files. Before printing, every image goes through the printing device’s native raster image process (RIP), which converts the PNG file with an RGB color profile to a CMYK color profile.
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How to Convert RGB Design to CMYK?
If you have created your design in RGB, you can preview how your design might look printed if you convert it to CMYK, which will give you an approximate idea of the color shift. But first, let’s look at some problems that may arise.
Print Colors and Limitations
Printed products like t-shirts, mugs, and canvas prints don’t emit but only reflect light. Therefore it is not possible to use the same additive RGB color system for printing. As a result, CMYK has a smaller color gamut than RGB. It would help if you remembered that it is impossible to print bright red, bright green, or bright blue colors (and neons, too) with the CMYK color model.
If you use the RGB color system to create your designs, here is an example of a common issue in how a computer will display your design and how the garment will look once printed.
On the left, there is an uploaded RGB file with a bright red print. On the right, you can see how it would look when printed using CMYK colors. Bright colors lose their intensity and look duller.
There is a simple solution to avoid such unpleasant surprises with your beautiful designs. By setting your Photoshop or Adobe Illustrator image settings to CMYK, you will see on-screen colors close to the actual print.
Before creating the art file click: Image-> Mode -> CMYK Color
Before creating the art file, click File->Document Color Mode -> CMYK Color
Tip: If you don’t have access to any design software, we found a free open source tool that will help you with turning RGB to print colors.
If you’re downloading images and graphics from an online resource (make sure they’re royalty-free!), don’t forget to convert that image to CMYK (and make sure it’s hi-res to ensure high-quality print). However, all this doesn’t mean that all your designs must be converted to CMYK; If your customers want to see the actual representation of the colors, then the CMYK color palette is the closest to reality.
How to Make Sure Your Print Colors Are What You Want Them to Be
First and foremost: get samples. We recommend opening an online store only after sampling the goods you’re going to offer to your clients. Why? What if the colors you’ve chosen for your hoodie line fail to shine as bright in real life, thus causing dissatisfaction in your customers and yourself? Nobody needs that kind of negativity in their life. The difference in print color vibrancy is a real issue. What might look crazy vibrant on nylon or PU leather could look dull on cotton. So – sampling is everything. By sampling, you can also feed two birds with one scone: see the quality of your product and become a walking billboard for it.
How to Get Bright Print Colors With CMYK?
Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to reproduce the bright and saturated colors you see on your retina screen to tangible products. For example, if you’ve designed a bright, colorful floral pattern in RGB and want to convert the same colors to CMYK, they won’t look as bright in print. The most brilliant colors achievable using CMYK are solids. First, 100% of cyan, magenta, and yellow will appear as the most colorful colors available in print.
Again, these colors will not come out as bright as they appear onscreen. RGB color model has many more shades available than CMYK. Also, a backlit screen will create a more brilliant color than any pigment on canvas or any other material can match. However, some materials are superior to others when it comes to color brightness: PU leather, for instance, will give significantly more vivid outcome than a cotton hoodie, but that’s physics, man. Can’t to anything about it, just enjoy the comfy sweater, even if it’s a teensy bit more dull than it looked onscreen.
So, if you want bright, solid colors is your guy. For example, 100% cyan +100% yellow creates a bright green. If your interpretation of “bright” does not necessarily mean “saturated,” you will have to tint those colors. Note that this is one thing at which process colors (CMYK) are the least effective. These are the limitations of process colors.
Printify Is Awesome for Your Print-On-Demand Needs!
If you’re new here, Printify is a superb way to get started. First of all, Printify is free for everyone, no matter how big or small your online business is. Signing up, designing merch from our vast catalog (it contains more than 800 different customizable products), and integrations with the most popular online marketplaces in the world, all of it is free.
By the way, we can’t talk about designing products without mentioning the Mockup Generator, with which you can put to use your newly acquired knowledge about print colors. It’s oh-so-easy to use and generates stunning product mockups for you to add to your online storefront.
And for those who plan to sell a bit more, check out Printify Premium. By subscribing, you get 10 stores per account, unlimited product designs, and up to 20% discount on all products.
How to Achieve the Best Possible Results
Upon selling merch online, the most important thing is to find a niche you’re passionate about and then market these products to your customers. People tend to care more about what the product represents and not what exact tone the printed color is. However, let’s not forget about our nitpicky brothers and sisters, so it’s always better to sample first, then sell.
However, unless you are a corporation with a strict brand book, there really is no point in spending excessive amounts of time in color calibration or management. All you need is to make sure that what your customers see on their mobile or computer screens is as close as possible to the actual print colors that they will receive. Purple instead of blue? No bueno. Dark blue instead of a different shade of dark blue? It’s okay.
Print Color Combos and Most Frequent Errors
- Different print providers have different workflows for creating their products.
- White designs can not be printed on Natural/Vintage Tote Bags, the process won’t allow this.
- You can’t achieve neon or glow-in-the-dark colors.
Now that you know that you should use RGB for online graphics and CMYK – print colors – for tangible goodies, you’re ready to tackle the next step: designing your own line of clothing, accessories, home decor, and other lucrative merch to add to your eCommerce store. Designing, selling, and earning a nice steady stream of side income (or main income, for that matter!) with Printify is so very easy. There are more than 300 blank products on which you can express your creativity. We’ve got 90+ printing partners worldwide that you can try out and decide which one is the best for your business needs. So, go ahead, get your creative juices flowing and design the CMYK out of it.
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