Graphic Design: Difference Between RGB and CMYK Explained

Graphic design plays a crucial role in the world of visual information delivery. Colors are of central importance because they significantly influence the emotions and messages that a graphic wants to convey. Two of the most common color models in graphic design are RGB and CMYK. In this article you will find the difference between these two models clearly explained. You will also find out when you should use one or the other model.

What is RGB?

RGB stands for Red, Green and Blue and is an additive color model. This means that the colors in the RGB color space are created by mixing the three primary colors. This is based on the interaction of the display medium, namely screens and displays with red, green and blue light points, as well as the so-called cones in the human eye, which enable color vision. The brightness of the colors in this model is controlled by adjusting the light intensity. The more light is added, the brighter the color becomes.

What graphics is RGB used for?

RGB is primarily used for digital media and display applications. The RGB color space is used when the created content is displayed on computer monitors,  Smartphone displays, digital billboards, television or the like. Important examples of RGB graphics are photos, images, drawings, logos and lettering on websites. This also includes social media graphics/sharepics, videos and animations. Because these media use light to display, the RGB color model is ideal for creating bright, high-contrast colors.

A few points worth knowing about RGB

White occurs in the RGB color space when all three primary colors are used to the maximum. This occurs in graphics and design apps, for example. For example, if you set all color controls to the maximum (8) in an 255-bit graphic. Because then the red, green and blue components of a pixel are fully used and white light is created. Absence of all colors (all color values ​​set to 0) deactivates the pixel so that black can be displayed. The 8-bit RGB color space is responsible for the “16,7 million colors” color specification for monitors and displays, because 256 x 256 x 256 color tones can be displayed.

What is CMYK?

CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Key) and is a subtractive color model. Unlike RGB, CMYK is based on the idea of ​​creating colors by reducing light and color. To do this, the individual primary colors and black are applied one after the other to the print medium (e.g. paper), so that they are mixed, resulting in new colors as well as brightness and contrast. The light is essentially subtracted from the white paper to create the image.

Black is called “key” for two reasons. On the one hand, the color plates of a print used to be aligned with the black plate, making it the key position. On the other hand, the black layer can further control the other colors or their tone, brightness and contrast - so it plays a key role even without manually positioning printing plates. If all three primary colors are mixed, a dark gray is created, which is another reason why - unlike RGB - a separate black level is necessary.

For which graphics is CMYK used?

CMYK is primarily used for printed media, including: B. Magazines, flyers, posters, photo prints and packaging. Although RGB can be converted to CMYK, in order to accurately implement the desired color schemes and effects, it makes sense to create the source file directly in the CMYK color space. This means that the colors can be mixed exactly as they should come together later in the printing process. There are basically no limits to the type of graphics, as everything from photos to comics to complex graphic designs can now be printed.

A few points worth knowing about CMYK

Due to different printing techniques, possibly inaccurate color distribution and fluctuating white tones in the paper, there can sometimes be significant differences in the printing of the same design. However, some technical standards and conversion aids ensure that fairly consistent printing results are achieved despite different technologies and different basic requirements. In addition to printing, the CMYK color model can also be used in lighting technology using color filters. In addition to cyan, magenta and yellow, there is no black filter; Rather, the corresponding light source is switched off for black.

Other sources for more detailed information

This blog post was only intended to provide a rough overview and an introduction to the topics of RGB and CMYK. There is of course a lot more to say about both. For example, the history of the development of both models can further contribute to understanding. The breakdown of various display and printing systems as well as their differences and limitations also ensure more targeted work in the graphics area. If you want to continue the deep dive after the beginning here, you can do so, among other things: on Wikipedia (RGB and CMYK) or do so using the appropriate specialist literature.

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