Both RGB and CMYK are modes for mixing color in graphic design. As a quick reference, the RGB color mode is best for digital work, while CMYK is used for print products. But to fully optimize your design, you need to understand the mechanisms behind each. Let’s dive deeper.

What is CMYK?

CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Key/Black) is the color space for printed materials.

The CMYK and subtractive mixing color mode
CMYK and subtractive mixing

A printing machine creates images by combining CMYK colors to varying degrees with physical ink. This is known as subtractive mixing. All colors start as blank white, and each layer of ink reduces the initial brightness to create the preferred color. When all colors are mixed together, they create pure black.

When to use CMYK?

Use CMYK for any project design that will be physically printed, not viewed on a screen. If you need to recreate your design with ink or paint, the CMYK color mode will give you more accurate results.

Turn to CMYK if your project involves:

  • Branding
    • business cards
    • stationary
    • stickers
    • signs & storefronts
  • Advertising
    • billboards
    • posters
    • flyers
    • vehicle wraps
    • brochures
  • Merchandise
    • t-shirts, hats and other branded clothing
    • promotional swag (pens, mugs, etc.)
  • Essential materials
    • product packaging
    • restaurant menus

What is RGB?

RGB (Red, Green and Blue) is the color space for digital images. Use the RGB color mode if your design is supposed to be displayed on any kind of screen.

The RGB and additive mixing color mode
RGB and additive mixing

A light source within a device creates any color you need by mixing red, green and blue and varying their intensity. This is known as additive mixing: all colors begin as black darkness and then red, green and blue light is added on top of each other to brighten it and create the perfect pigment. When red, green and blue light is mixed together at equal intensity, they create pure white.

Designers can control aspects like saturation, vibrancy and shading by modifying any of the three source colors. Because it’s done digitally, the designer manipulates how the light on the screen manifests to create the color they want.

When to use RGB?

If the end destination of your design project is a digital screen, use the RGB color mode. This would go for anything that involves computers, smartphones, tablets, TVs, cameras, etc.

Turn to RGB if your design project involves:

  • web & app design
    • icons
    • buttons
    • graphics
  • branding
    • online logos
    • online ads
  • social media
    • images for posts
    • profile pictures
    • profile backgrounds
  • visual content
    • video
    • digital graphics
    • infographics
    • photographs for website, social media, or apps

What are the best file formats for RGB?

Image showing the different file formats for RGB images
RGB file formats

JPEGs are ideal for RGB files because they’re a nice middle-ground between file size and quality, and they’re readable almost anywhere.

PSD is the standard source file for RGB documents, assuming all team members are working with Adobe Photoshop.

PNGs support transparency and are better for graphics that need to be superimposed over others. Consider this file type for interface elements like buttons, icons or banners.

GIFs capture motion, so if you’re using an animated element, such as a moving logo or a bouncing icon, this file type would be ideal.

It’s best to avoid TIFF, EPS, PDF and BMP for RGB purposes. These formats are not compatible with most software, not to mention they can be unnecessarily large in terms of data.