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RGB vs CMYK – What’s the Difference and Why Does it Matter

If you do any type of graphic design, you may have seen the terms “CMYK” and “RGB.” Some design programs have a default set, but many design programs ask you to choose one of these modes every time you start a new design and that may leave you wondering: what do these terms stand for, what is the difference between them and does it make a difference? Let’s go ahead and address these acronyms and answer some frequently asked questions about them:

1. What does RGB and CMYK stand for?

RGB stands for Red, Green, Blue and CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Key (aka black). These describe the color models each use – essentially RGB uses a light source within the device you are viewing the project plus red, green, and blue as primarily colors to create all other colors while CMYK uses cyan, magenta, yellow and black to do the same on paper.

2. Which one do I use and why?

RGB is the primary color mode for digital projects. This is because the light a device provides becomes essential to making colors. CMYK is the primary color mode for printed projects – if you have an opportunity to look into a printer or copier at any point, you may note the toner colors are labeled with the same colors CMYK stands for. Choose the right color mode by thinking about the final product – if it’s going to be printed at our shop, use CMYK. If it’s a project primarily available via, use RGB.

3. Which file formats are best for RGB projects?

Files that are typically used and exchanged online are best provided in RBG color mode. This includes .JPGs, .PNGs, .GIFs and Adobe Photoshop files (.PSDs).

Examples of when to use RGB:

  • images for websites
  • social media posts
  • infographics

4. Which file formats are best for CMYK projects?

Projects heading to the printer are best provided in CMYK mode. This includes .PDFs, .EPSs and Adobe Illustator files (.AI).

Examples of when to use CMYK:

  • business cards
  • signs
  • flyers
  • product packaging
  • promotional materials


We hope this brief summary of color modes empowers you with the knowledge to pick the right color mode for your project! We’re here to help so if you have questions about which color mode is right for you, contact us today.

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