Differences Between RGB and CMYK

What Are The Differences Between RGB and CMYK?

The problem with color when designing branded promotional items or custom t-shirts is that you typically need to use two dramatically different color models for different phases of a project; RGB and CMYK. When creating a design, most designers use the RGB color mode since 99% of all design work is done on a computer, but when printing that same design–whether it is on paper, a t-shirt or a promotional item–the printer uses the CMYK color mode.

The subtle differences created by these different approaches can cause a great deal of variance between how the color is displayed on a screen when compared to how it appears once it has been printed.

RGB – The Color Model for Design

RGB stands for Red, Green and Blue which is the color model used for light emitting devices such as TVs and monitors. RGB is considered to be an additive color process since it adds (or combines) different amounts of red, green and blue to a dark screen to create all other colors. When all of them are mixed equally it produces white. RGB is also the standard used for digital cameras, scanners and projectors which are all elements that contribute to the “design-side” of the process. RGB is commonly used for webpages and electronic mediums.

Since TVs and monitors are dark in their “off” state, this model works better because it provides contrast between the dark screen and the light emitted image. For this reason, most applications use the RGB format to display color.

CMYK – The Color Model for Printing

CMYK stands for Cyan (Blue), Magenta (Red), Yellow and Black. Black is represented by “K”–the last letter of the word–so it doesn’t get mixed up with blue. Since the printing process starts with a light background, such as on a white piece of paper or light-colored t-shirt design, CMYK is considered to be a subtractive color model since each color of ink “subtracts” white from the final image in the print itself. When cyan, magenta and yellow are combined equally it creates a dark gray color–also known as “composite black”–and because of this a fourth layer of black is included within the process to help sharpen the contrast within the print. The combination of these 4 layers creates the full color print. This is why this model is sometimes called “four color process” printing.


Because RGB colors start on a dark background to begin with (a dark monitor) when sending an RGB image to a light surface, such as white paper or a white t-shirt design, the RGB image will appear darker because the ink on the paper can only reflect and absorb light, not add it as it could on a monitor. In addition, CMYK has been used for decades and is the most popular–as well as the least expensive–method of printing. It is far cheaper than using toner-based or digital printing for large numbers of copies. Because CMYK is the standard color model used by professional printers, you need to keep this in mind when designing your project because your image will need to be converted from RGB to CMYK.

Looking to Bring Your Branded Promotional Items to Life? Need more information on RGB and CMYK?

Then reach out to BYOG (Build Your Own Garment) and let us help you with your promotional products printing, spirit wear designs, custom embroidery and t-shirt design and printing. Just give us a call at 855-776-8465, contact us using our Live Chat feature by clicking on the Live Chat! button on any page of the site or use our online contact form to get a response within 24 hours.

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